“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.” -Ben Okri
Let me take you back 20 years, to the early 1990s. Back then, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator was right here in the United States: Fermilab’s Tevatron.
With energies of one Tera-electron-Volt (hence Tevatron) per beam, and a beam of protons colliding with anti-protons, it was the most powerful accelerator in the world by a large margin.
And even though plans for the Large Hadron Collider were in the works (with 7 TeV per beam), we had plans of our own.
Deep in the heart of Texas, we were building the mother of all particle accelerators: the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), with energies of 20 TeV per beam! It was going to position the US at the top of the accelerator physics world for decades to come, and have an energy reach of nearly six times what the LHC is currently running at.
In 1987, Congress was told the project could be completed for $4.4 billion, and the Texas site was selected the next year.
Major construction began in 1991, and over the next two years, more than 23 kilometers (over 14 miles) of tunnel were dug, with seventeen shafts leading down to it.
But already by this point, nearly 2 billion dollars had been spent, and the SSC was nowhere near completion. By time Congress cancelled the project in October of 1993, the cost estimates for completion had ballooned to somewhere around $12 billion, with the Department of Energy’s Inspector General releasing a report very critical of the high costs and poor management of the project.
You know the rest of that story. Fermilab’s Tevatron is shutting down for good over the next year, the LHC was completed (for about $5 billion) and is up and running, and particle physics in the US is now just a handful of smaller, low energy accelerators that are not competitive with the LHC, incapable of discovering new fundamental particles. In short, US particle physics sealed its doom with the SSC fiasco.
Come into the 2000s, now, in astrophysics. With the Hubble Space Telescope in full swing, we also had a large number of great projects going, including the Chandra X-Ray observatory, shown below looking at the Crab Nebula,
WMAP, taking pictures of the Universe from when it was only 380,000 years old,
as well as a whole host of other space-based telescopes, including SWIFT, WISE, Spitzer, Kepler, GALEX, and Fermi, among others.
Each of these probed different wavelengths of visible light, from microwaves all the way down to gamma rays, and everything in between. In fact, looking at an object like the Andromeda Galaxy in different wavelengths can teach us an amazing variety of things about it!
And we had great plans, just a few years ago, of really pushing the envelope in a wide array of areas, opening new doors to understanding the Universe.
The International X-Ray Observatory would supersede Chandra and all other X-Ray observatories, giving us the best view of high-energy phenomena — such as colliding galaxies, black holes, and antimatter jets — in the Universe!
The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna would be the first space-based gravitational wave detectors, capable of seeing things like merging black holes for the first time ever in our Universe!
W-FIRST, which will find thousands of distant supernovae and measure large-scale structure more accurately than ever before, would not only make the best-ever measurements of the mysterious dark energy, but would — as a bonus — image two billion galaxies and find extra-solar planets in our galactic bulge! (Technical info available here.)
And, of course, the pièce de résistance…
The James Webb Space Telescope! With a 6.5 meter segmented mirror, James Webb will have more than seven times the light-gathering power that Hubble currently enjoys.
With the ability to peer deeper and farther into the Universe than any telescope before, James Webb will not only set all sorts of records across a huge set of wavelengths, it should also — for the first time ever — be able to detect signatures from the very first stars ever formed in the Universe!
Here’s a comparison of James Webb’s sensitivities with some other space telescopes.
Note the y-axis, and that it’s about a factor of 100 more sensitive than its nearest competitors.
There are all sorts of wonderful arguments for why we need James Webb (including my take), and all sorts of new discoveries just waiting for us. We’ve already advanced incredibly far, and realistically, at a minuscule monetary cost compared to what we spend on other things.
But that’s no excuse for egregious financial mismanagement. IXO, LISA and W-FIRST are all on the back burners right now, despite W-FIRST being NASA’s recent decadal survey’s number 1 recommended project. Because James Webb — at an estimated cost of $5.1 billion — is the top priority right now. We’ve put all our eggs in this basket. Well, guess what?
A little less than a year ago, it was determined that the $5.1 billion figure was unrealistic, and that it would actually cost an extra 1.4 billion dollars beyond that to complete it. Quoting from Science News:
An independent investigative panel reported in November that the telescope, known by the acronym JWST, is running a minimum of $1.4 billion over budget. That overrun, which would bring the total cost of building the telescope to at least $6.5 billion, may lead to the cancellation of another highly touted NASA mission to probe the nature of dark energy and extrasolar planets.
The 2014 launch date was said to be unrealistic as well, and despite how much astrophysics needs this to keep learning and exploring the Universe, the US House Appropriations Committee deleted funding for James Webb entirely this year.
But I didn’t lose hope; the government actually did what they were supposed to do in the face of this!
The US Senator — Barbara Mikulski — who represents Goddard Space Flight Center (above), where the Webb Telescope is being assembled, ordered an independent cost analysis. Here are the sickening results.
Managers at NASA replanning the James Webb Space Telescope program after an independent cost analysis found it over budget and behind schedule have concluded it will cost about $8.7 billion to finish the telescope in time for a launch in 2018.
How does a theoretical astrophysicist feel at hearing this news?
And this is the great tragedy of it all. We should fund it. We should be doing this science. We should be learning all these wonderful things about the Universe. We should be sending up the best equipment and developing the necessary technologies for it. (For what it’s worth, they often later lead to great innovations in the marketplace, too!)
My great fear in all of this is that NASA Astrophysics will go the way particle physics did 20 years ago. How horrible for knowledge, curiosity and adventure if IXO, LISA and W-FIRST never happen because NASA managers can’t count. That James Webb is now going to be delayed by four more years, and realistically the only way it will get built is if we steal money from other NASA projects to do it. Because astrophysics at NASA is already feeling the sting.
Learning more about the Universe is one of the things, literally, that I live for. Listen up, NASA’s Astrophysics division. It’s way past time to get your act together. Here’s what you need to do from now on.
No more accepting proposals with unrealistic budgets. I don’t care how tantalizing the project is; if it can’t be done for what they say it can be done for, you can’t fund it.
No more allowing large projects to balloon out-of-control to just accomplish a little more. Learn when to say when.
Don’t scrap all of your small- and medium-sized missions in favor of large ones. Remember faster-better-cheaper? It was better than what we have now.
No putting all your eggs in one basket. I mean it. All of your current missions are ending, and what are you going to replace them with? Lest you think I exaggerate, let’s take a look at your own mission timeline:
Everyone — theorists, observers, technicians, contractors, instrument builders, professors, students, Starts With A Bang readers — is counting on you. If you don’t get it right, now, you’re going to condemn us all to the same fate as experimental particle physics. And while Europe is great, we like it here. Give us a home, and we’ll help you make it great.
Here’s hoping that we all get one more chance.