Webb telescope may be axed
It is one of the most sophisticated and technologically advanced machines ever conceived. The Next Generation Space Telescope, named for former Apollo-era NASA administrator James Webb, is actually designed to look all the way back to the beginning of time - 14 billion light years. It will also aid in detecting life on other planets, as well as catalogue rare cosomlogical phenomena like gamma ray bursts and supernovas.
But in an era of budget cutting, it is seen by many on the Hill as a luxury we can't afford:
The House Appropriations Committee released its 2012 Commerce, Justice and Science funding bill today, ahead of a scheduled committee markup Thursday. The bill provides $50.2 billion overall for the nation's projects in those three areas, which is $7.4 billion less than President Obama's budget request. NASA's budget is slashed by $1.6 billion, which is $1.9 billion less than Obama wanted. About $1 billion of that comes from the end of the shuttle program, and NASA Science funding is cut by $431 million from last year.
The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management," an Appropriations Committee press release says flatly.
While management problems are a little more subjective, the telescope is indeed massively over budget, as we've told you before. In November, a congressional panel described the telescope as "NASA's Hurricane Katrina," because of its destructive toll on other agency projects. That review found the telescope's price tag had mushroomed to $6.5 billion and that it would not be ready until at least 2015. Then, just last week, the watchdog site NASA Watch obtained a memo from Goddard Space Flight Center describing that it may not launch until after 2018 -- even that is "unfeasible," the report said.
Why the massive cost overruns?
"The funds invested to date have not been wasted." The JWST has enabled several engineering feats, from brand-new metal compounds to a huge space umbrella that will shield it from the sun. The umbrella will unfurl in space along with an enormous 18-piece primary mirror made of material that is supposed to warp in frigid temperatures. Astronomers say the JWST will provide unprecedented imagery of the deepest corners of the cosmos.
The telescope will be placed in a very large orbit around the sun - far enough away from earth that reflected light will be at a minimum. It is revolutionary in almost every way and the engineering problems in constructing it have set the program back several years.
A good argument can be made we have other things to spend the money on - or simply not spend in the first place. But as with most projects of this sort, the payoff comes in spin off technologies - impossible to foresee but a certainty given the history of the space program. Those industries mean jobs, new products, and critical investments in new technologies that keep America's competitive edge.
Can we afford to forgo those benefits for the temporary savings of a few billion dollars? I wonder.