JWST: the knives come out

A House Divided Can Not Stand…

As the American Astronomical Society tries to rally support for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which was deleted from the budget, with extreme prejudice, by the House Appropriations Committee, other players chime in, and they are not quite as enthusiastic.

Spaceref published a copy of a letter from David Alexander of Rice University, Chair of the AAS Solar Physics Division.

“…However, the cost of the JWST threatens to swamp us all and the AAS should be careful, as a multi-disciplinary organization, to balance the various concerns of each of its constituents and to work towards a solution that does not promote one division’s interests at the expense of another’s. …”

The letter is to Kevin Marvel at the AAS and other AAS execs.
The AAS seems mostly worried about who leaked the letter.

So, Helio is worried that any JWST rescue will eat its lunch, with some justification.

Then, coincidentally, the Planetary Exploration Newsletter published a special editorial signed by many of the good and great from the AAS Division of Planetary Science, and the Geological Society of America.

“…We believe it is time to have an open debate on JWST and its value
across all targeted communities, from planetary, Earth science, and
heliophysics to human spaceflight. Congress needs to be informed about
the impact of the choices facing it.

We individually and together reject the premise that JWST must be
restored at all costs.


There is, of course, a large grain of truth to the concerns – ramping up JWST funding to enable its completion would have to take funding from outside Astrophysics, and historically Exploration and Operations don’t give, just take.
I think any plan involving payback from those Directorates is acute wishful thinking and unlikely to happen, though I’d love to be proved wrong.

Within Science, Helio, Earth Science and Planetary Science have their own priorities and JWST ranks from low to nowhere among these, and those Divisions do not want their own multi-year priorities set back indefinitely by Astrophysics’ years in the wilderness.

I fear Mikulski was right back when, the only way JWST goes through at this point is if the White House goes all out on it, and even then, in the current political climate, it may lose.

Interesting times, eh?


  1. #1 Lassi Hippeläinen
    September 10, 2011

    Another look at the JWST, from a cosmologist (you can guess where that leads to):

  2. #2 Martin J Sallberg
    September 10, 2011

    Martin J Sallberg
    Useful Casimir effect for cheap spacelaunches.
    The Casimir effect is traditionally demonstrated by placing two thin parallel plates mere micrometers apart in a vacuum and letting them slam together. The effect is due to vacuum energy. It can in principle be used to modify the vacuum for cheap spacelaunches and efficient space travel, but that requires preventing the plates from slamming together, so that the Casimir effect remains. That can be done by repulsive magnetic fields or by mechanically holding the plates in the edges (only in the edges, to keep the space between them). Another possibility is to abandon the parallel plates altogether and use microchannels or other microscopic holes instead. Anyone is free to build it, I am not going to claim any patent or money.

  3. #3 j
    September 10, 2011

    But my impression is that the AAS hasn’t actually been doing _anything_. No action alert, at the very least. Every bit of lobbying information I’ve seen has come through individuals, and I don’t think the AAS is behind it.

    Not a good situation when one branch of astrophysics feels compelled to lobby against another branch of astrophysics’ top decadal survey recommendation….

  4. #4 Neil Craig
    September 10, 2011

    Perhaps it could be apprpriated more cheaply outwith NASA.
    SpaceX is promising to launch satellites at $54 million http://www.spacex.com/usa.php

  5. #5 ravi kopparapu
    September 10, 2011

    Not good for science at all, but can they (other divisions) be blamed with funding for JWST being likely/probably taken from other science programs with out increasing NASA’s budget ? They are just rying to save their science.

  6. #6 Heinrich Monroe
    September 10, 2011

    “But my impression is that the AAS hasn’t actually been doing _anything_. No action alert, at the very least.”

    There have been plenty of “action alerts” from the AAS. Those action alerts are for people to save JWST at all costs. What there haven’t been are “put-on-your-thinking-cap” alerts from the AAS. These would say something to the effect of “please consider carefully, and let’s discuss the ramifications to astrophysics of both saving and terminating JWST”.

    The ramification of terminating it is that we lose JWST science. Some would say that astrophysics would lose JWST money, but there is no proof of that. There is no proof that we’d lose all the science that JWST funds could be plowed into. Another ramification of termination is the breakdown of international partnerships. Not good.

    The ramification of continuing it is that astronomy begs, borrows, and or steals money from other NASA disciplines, to the tune of $2-3 billion over six years. This will formally declare open-season on taking money from other disciplines. It also formally declares that a repeated cost management trainwreck should be rewarded. It almost certainly means that astrophysics will never, ever, get another flagship mission. Not good.

    Yes, it’s thinking cap time, rather than the “oooh, our science is so good, it has to be continued at all costs!!!” argument, which is that sad one that is being used now. Take that, planetary, heliophysics, and earth scientists. Our science is better than yours!

    That “Exploration and Operations don’t give, just take” is a misreading of the situation. Mike Griffin would have seen to it that they took, the science community screamed, and that threat was killed. It didn’t happen. That being the case, how is it that astrophysics now turns the tables and threatens to take from them? Oh, we want that open-season after all, I guess.

  7. #7 coolstar
    September 14, 2011

    Yes, when the knives come out, it’s not a good thing for JWST. I think Heinrich Monroe above did an excellent job of summarizing the possibilities. As a stellar astronomer, I’d hate to see JWST go (not that very much observing time would actually go to this field, other than a little to exoplanet work), but that is really shaping up to be perhaps the best alternative.

  8. #8 Ben
    September 14, 2011

    I think “Some would say that astrophysics would lose JWST money, but there is no proof of that” is very wishful thinking. There is no proof of it, but there’s a very strong prediction, and it appears to be basically what the budget language said. They didn’t say anything about the money coming back to astrophysics, and that pretty much means it won’t.

    The next time a mission in another division starts to cost a lot, I don’t think the other divisions will throw up their hands and say “Sure, let our mission go – we wouldn’t want to cramp Astrophysics, after all.” As a professor told me a couple of years ago, “Ben, stop being so god-damned altruistic.”

  9. #9 Heinrich Monroe
    September 14, 2011

    “I think ‘Some would say that astrophysics would lose JWST money, but there is no proof of that’ is very wishful thinking. There is no proof of it, but there’s a very strong prediction, and it appears to be basically what the budget language said.”

    No, that’s fundamentally incorrect. It’s NOT what the budget language (which is actually non-binding “report” language) said. Read the words. What is at stake is FY12 funds. If JWST is killed in the FY12 budget, the funds budgeted for it in FY12 are gone. Appropriations legislation is for ONE fiscal year. Congressional appropriators don’t get to say where money goes or doesn’t go in succeeding fiscal years. But the remaining, what, $4B that would be spent between FY13 and FY18 on JWST may or may not be gone, depending on the kind of deal the astronomy community can make with Congress. Congress wants to do space astrophysics. It has invested a pretty level $1B/yr in it. It’s one thing to punish the community by terminating a mission. It’s another thing to terminate a discipline.

    Look at Constellation, the new architecture for human space flight. Hugely ambitious program, badly costed. Ground itself deep into a budgetary and schedule hole. Plug was pulled, big costs were sunk. Did that money leave human space flight? No, it sure didn’t. That money is still there, in commercial, MPCV, ISS, and now (egad) SLS.

    Let’s talk about altruism. This has nothing to do with altruism. It’s about setting a precedent that is guaranteed to eat your lunch later on. There is no such thing as a free lunch, except to the extent that you can eat someone elses lunch.

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