“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” -John Burroughs
The greatest tool for astronomers of the past 20 years has, without a doubt, been the Hubble Space Telescope.
Since its launch in 1990, it’s no stretch to say more scientific knowledge has come out of this telescope than out of any instrument in history. It’s taught us what the expansion rate of the Universe is, that the expansion is accelerating, has helped us understand how stars are born, directly imaged the first planets outside of our Solar System, and discovered thousands of supernovae from objects many billions of light years away, among many other things.
And, oh yes, it’s taken glorious images of the most distant galaxies ever seen, as this image below shows.
This is just one tenth of the image known as the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, taken over the equivalent of twelve days of pointing this ultra-powerful telescope at a blank area of the sky. Over 10,000 new galaxies were imaged in that image alone, which covers just one-thirtieth of a square degree. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hubble has changed our view of the Universe.
But Hubble isn’t the end of astronomy and astrophysics; there’s a whole lot more Universe out there simply begging to be understood. How did the first stars form? What do the earliest galaxies look like? When did the first galaxy clusters show up? And, needless to say, so much more. To get there, we need a significantly larger telescope, in space, capable of viewing wavelengths of light far longer than the ones Hubble is sensitive to. And that’s just what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — with seven times Hubble’s light-gathering power — promises to be.
The price tag is large, but it needs to be viewed in context. Money invested in the Webb telescope creates jobs: master welders, electrical engineers and young astronomers. Though some of these jobs are of the hard-hat variety, this is not a bridge to nowhere; this is a bridge to the edge of the universe itself.
As you’ve probably already heard, what was originally slated to be a $5.1 Billion project, to launch in 2013, was re-evaluated, and found that it would actually cost $6.5 Billion, and wouldn’t be able to launch until 2015.
Now, that was bad enough news, but it came out last month — and if you were here, you read about it — that the total cost would actually be more like $8.7 billion, and the launch date wouldn’t happen until 2018. Understandably, like many other people (possibly including you), I was livid, and wondered if NASA’s astrophysics division was committing suicide. On the other hand, NASA was claiming that the telescope components were 85% complete, and that only $3.5 billion was spent thus far.
Something wasn’t adding up. How could the telescope be more than three-quarters complete after $3.5 billion, but require more than double that amount to finish it? Also, how did the launch date get bumped by three years, to 2018? And how did 6.5 billion become a disastrous $8.7 billion so quickly? So I did a little digging around, and perhaps a little investigative reporting as well, and got ahold of a Webb Project Scientist who’s also a member of the Webb Science Working Group. (I’m keeping all my sources anonymous, and you can go to Venus if you want them.) Here’s what I’ve learned.
The JWST requires a total of six things to complete and operate it:
- The Optical Telescope Element (OTE), which includes the 18 primary mirrors, the secondary and tertiary mirrors, and the supporting backplane.
- The Integrated Science Instrument Module, which contains the four major instruments of JWST, and is what makes use of the light gathered by the OTE.
- The Spacecraft Element, which includes the sunshield and the bus, which provides power, steering, and control over the spacecraft.
- Integration and testing of the components, because you’d better test that the pieces work properly with one another when they’re put together, not just separately on their own.
- The launch and deployment, and
- the cost of five years of human support and operation.
The original cost estimate was $5.1 billion, and included the first five elements only. The 2013 launch date was never settled upon, and the optimistic estimate associated with the $5.1 billion figure was 2014. When the cost went up to $6.5 billion and the launch date got pushed to 2015, that was really NASA’s fault. I don’t want you to come away with the impression that NASA is blameless in this; there really was budget mismanagement. This happened last year.
How did it happen? As my source tells it,
During 2010 the project held its next major review: the Critical Design Review. By this time the 2014 launch date had started to appear not credible. Therefore, Senator B. Mikulski, chair of the appropriation subcommittee responsible for NASA, called for an independent review of the project in the Summer 2010. The Independent Comprehensive Review Panel found that the project had not been properly managed, primarily due to the lack of near term reserves which for a project of this complexity are needed to make sure that things stay on track when issues are discovered.
In other words, the mismanagement was primarily not keeping enough cash-on-hand to deal with unexpected issues when they came up. This resulted in a new figure of $6.5 billion and a new launch date of 2015.
This is important. The Independent Comprehensive Review Panel, when it came up with the $6.5 billion / 2015 figure, said that it was contingent. Upon what?
The ICRP conclusion was that the earliest JWST could be launched was late 2015 for a total cost of $6.5B of which $250M extra had to be provided in each of 2011 and 2012. They stated clearly that this was the earliest and cheapest way to launch JWST and any delay would result in a more expensive mission.
(Bold emphasis mine.)
So the government did an independent review of James Webb in 2010, determined what the quickest and cheapest way to complete it was, and what was needed to make that happen. They then didn’t provide the funds for it, and now further allow the blame to fall on NASA for the delays and cost overruns that they knew would happen.
As my source tells it,
Unfortunately, the extra funding required for the 2015 launch date never became available with the resulting slip in launch date to 2018 and the additional ~$1-1.5B of extra cost due to the delay. The cost to construction for JWST has not been made public as of this time but it has been quoted to be between $7.5-8B which would agree with the broad argument above. We know that the new budget includes the appropriate level of reserves and schedule margin and addresses the issues raised by the ICRP.
The $8.7B that has been quoted recently includes the post-launch operations costs which however are to this day just a rough estimate. Thus, $8.7B is essentially the same number as the ~$8B number for the cost to construction, once an estimate for operations is included.
Indeed one of my fears when the ICRP was released is that people would remember $6.5B and forget the conditions under which that number was predicated.
I’ll note that the $8.7 billion includes approximately $800 million ($0.8 billion) for five years of support and operation — step 6, above — that was not included in the revamped $6.5 billion figure. The reason for the huge, $1-1.5 billion and three year differences is because NASA has had to lay off workers and stop work on many components due to a lack of funds.
In a nutshell, the government did an independent review in 2010, determined what was necessary to finish the job as cheaply and quickly as possible (an extra $1.4 billion, with $250 million extra in each of 2011 and 2012), didn’t do those things, and now lets NASA both take the blame and deal with the fallout as it’s faced with unavoidable cost overruns and delays.
Which is really a tragedy, considering how much progress has been made on the first three of the major elements: the Optical Telescope Element, the Integrated Science Instrument Module, and the Spacecraft Element. Contrary to the perception that the $3.5 billion that have been spent were in large part wasted, they’ve been put to outstanding use, as I’ll show you.
The mirrors — the most important part of the Optical Telescope Element — are 98% complete! This includes the ultra-light primary mirrors (not made out of glass, but of gold-coated beryllium) as well as the secondary and tertiary ones; this is arguably the most important part of the telescope. Sixteen (out of eighteen main segments) have not only been finished, but have completed cryogenic testing as well, and are ready-to-go. The mirrors’ odyssey is quite remarkable, as this NASA video shows.
But for $3.5 billion, you get a lot more than just the mirrors.
The Integrated Science Instrument Module is over 90% complete! That includes the instrument housing, above, as well as over 90% completion on each of the four major instruments.
Each one of these, in and of itself, is a remarkable achievement. And I’ve got pictures and diagrams of every one.
There’s the Near Infrared Camera, James Webb’s primary imaging camera. Extending over an order of magnitude of wavelengths, from visible, orange light deep into the infrared, it should be able to give us unprecedented views of the earliest stars, the youngest galaxies in the process of formation, young stars in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, hundreds of new objects in the Kuiper Belt, as well as being optimized for directly imaging planets around other stars.
The Near Infrared Camera, which is presently 90% complete, is expected to be the most frequently used instrument aboard James Webb. It is being built by the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin.
There’s the Near Infrared Spectrograph, which not only breaks the light from individual objects apart into its individual wavelengths, it’s designed to do this for more than 100 separate objects at once, in a single image! This workhorse will be Webb’s all-purpose spectrograph, capable of three distinct modes of spectroscopy.
Although this instrument is being built by the European Space Agency, many components, including the detectors and multi-shutter array, are provided by Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA. The instrument, at present, is 95% complete, having completed assembly, and is now undergoing testing in Europe.
The Mid-Infrared Instrument will be the one most useful for wide-field broadband imaging, meaning that it will return the most visually striking pictures of all of Webb’s instruments. Scientifically, it will be most useful for the measurement of proto-planetary disks around incredibly young stars, Kuiper Belt objects, and dust that has been warmed by starlight.
Construction has been finished, and it has completed its cryogenic performance tests in England. This will be the coldest instrument aboard the Webb, which will operate at a chilly 7 Kelvin.
And the last of the four instruments, the Fine Guidance Sensor Tunable Filter Imager, will allow Webb to point extremely precisely at individual objects, as well as to select and focus on extremely specific wavelengths of light, to better than 1% selection.
Construction is complete on this instrument, which is being built by the Canadian Space Agency, and is currently undergoing cryogenic testing.
With the mirrors and instruments going so well, you would be right to be optimistic about the Webb. And spacecraft buses have been built before, and should be relatively routine.
The solar panels, electronics, communications and propulsion will be expensive, but shouldn’t pose a challenge the way the mirrors or the instruments did. But the sunshield is not only novel, it’s incredibly challenging. I could show you a picture that would get your hopes up for it almost being done as well, but it would be a false hope.
Because this isn’t the sunshield; it’s a 1/3 scale model currently being tested. The brutally cold temperatures that enable Webb to be as sensitive as is planned require an incredibly effective shield from the Sun, one that has never been built before. At this point, sunshield components are undergoing some larger-scale testing, and only then will full-on construction follow.
And until the sunshield is ready, no matter how good the mirrors and instruments are, the James Webb Space Telescope — and all of NASA astrophysics — can only sit and wait. And while NASA Astrophysics deserves the blame for the initial cost overruns and delays (to $6.5 billion and 2015), the most recent, disastrous news (a cost of $8.7 billion and delays to 2018) should fall on the shoulders of a miserly US congress.