D. Dowd Muska


A Boondoggle of Astronomical Proportions

July 28, 2011

A decade behind schedule. Billions of dollars over budget.

Yes, you guessed correctly: It’s a federal project.

It’s the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Long sought by astronomers, yet nowhere near ready to launch, it faces a mercy killing. Earlier this month, appropriators in the U.S. House of Representatives voted to defund the white elephant.

Named, nonsensically, for the administrator who ran NASA during the agency’s manned-spaceflight glory days, the JWST was to follow the trail blazed by the most famous observatory in the world. Years behind schedule and well over budget -- per NASA practice -- the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) went into orbit via the space shuttle in 1990. Then came the discovery of a faulty mirror, a boneheaded oversight that wasn’t fixed until 1993.

Despite its troubled start, Hubble, still in operation, went on to snap some of the most jaw-dropping pictures ever taken of the heavens. More importantly, it spawned thousands of scientific papers. In a 2009 op-ed, the president of the American Astronomical Society wrote that of the HSTs voluminous accomplishments, his three favorite were “determining the age of the universe,” “revealing what the early universe was like,” and confirming … that gravity began slowing down the expansion of our universe shortly after the Big Bang.”

A joint project of the U.S., Europe, and Canada, the JWST was designed to put Hubble to shame. It would peer farther out into space -- and thus, further back through time. Its targeted location, “a semi-stable point in the gravitational potential around the Sun and Earth,” would reduce interference from the home planet. A sunshield would help maintain the JWST’s temperature at an unimaginably frigid -370° F. While the HST’s focus has been the ultraviolet and visible spectrums, its successor would use infrared imaging. “Stars and planets that are just forming,” NASA explains, “lie hidden behind cocoons of dust that absorb visible light. … However, infrared light emitted by these regions can penetrate this dusty shroud and reveal what is inside.”

In 2001, Leonard David, a veteran space-beat journalist who should have known better, reported that the JWST’s price tag was “projected to be roughly in the $500 million range. That is less than one-quarter the cost of the Hubble Space Telescope. Making use of advanced technology, coupled with improved management techniques, is touted as the reason for the anticipated cost savings.”

TRW (now part of Northrop Grumman) battled Lockheed Martin for the nod to build the JWST, and in September 2002, the former secured the contract for $825 million. In March 2003, the trade publication Space News reported that the JWST was “in danger of overrunning its budget by hundreds of millions of dollars.” Capabilities were reduced, as they usually are when space systems get too expensive. Two years later, a revamped cost estimate pegged the overrun at $1.1 billion. Launch was delayed until 2013. In 2008, a former NASA associate administrator put the project’s bill at “almost $5 billion.”

The following year, the JWST got $65 million in “stimulus” funding. Last autumn, an independent review panel, blaming inadequate “budgeting and program management,” upped the telescope’s total life-cycle cost to $6.5 billion. The Government Accountability Office, in a recent email to Space News, stipulated that the figure could be much higher, and a few months ago, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Congress that the JWST will not launch before 2018.

So to sum up:

• Initial launch-date estimate: late 2008/early 2009

• Current launch-date estimate: 2018 (best-case scenario)

• Initial cost estimate: $500 million

• Current cost estimate: $7 billion to $8 billion

No wonder some fedpols have had enough of what The New York Times called the “crown jewel of NASA’s astronomy plans for the next two decades.” The House Appropriations Committee’s budget-cutters successfully eliminated all funding for the JWST in NASA’s proposed 2012 budget.

If the zeroing-out makes it through the full House, it will face an implacable enemy in the Senate. Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski pugnaciously protects every job at the Greenbelt-based Goddard Space Flight Center, which runs the JWST program. She’s spent more than 34 years on Capitol Hill, made many friends, and is doubtlessly owed many favors. Even with the national debt rocketing past $14 trillion, no sane man would bet against Mikulski’s ability to rescue the JWST from fiscal prudence.

“My own suspicion,” wrote J. B. S. Haldan, “is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The same can be said for Washington.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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