How the US Government Chose to Ruin the James Webb Space Telescope, and Blamed NASA

"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.

Image credit: NASA; view from the Space Shuttle.

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.

Image credit: S. Beckwith et al., STScI, NASA, and ESA.

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.

I've already written lots about why we need it, although there is a nice piece by James Bullock on the topic, where he states:

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.

Image credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham.

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.

Image credit: NASA.

The JWST requires a total of six things to complete and operate it:

  1. The Optical Telescope Element (OTE), which includes the 18 primary mirrors, the secondary and tertiary mirrors, and the supporting backplane.
  2. 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.
  3. The Spacecraft Element, which includes the sunshield and the bus, which provides power, steering, and control over the spacecraft.
  4. 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.
  5. The launch and deployment, and
  6. 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.

Image credit: Chris Gunn.

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.

No mirror this large has ever been constructed out of materials this light or this effective at reflecting infrared light. If the mirror, instead, was constructed out of the same materials as Hubble's mirror was, JWST would be unable to launch. To give you a scale of the technical achievement at work here, the gold coating on all eighteen mirrors, combined, weighs less than a third of an ounce, or one gold wedding ring.

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.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin.

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.

Image credit: Astrium / NIRSpec / GSFC / NASA / ESA.

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.

Image credit: Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, MIRI European Consortium and JPL.

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.

Image credit: John A. Brebner Communication Research Centre.

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.

Image credit: Nexolve.

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.

More like this

That was both extremely awe-inspiring and depressing at the same time. One part of me was screaming in awe and thinking how could people not want to fund this given how incredible of an achievement it is for the human race and another part of me was extremely cynical given the current political climate.

By Lotharloo (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

This is the kind of exciting endeavor that should be required reading for all students old enough to understand it - this is exactly what makes science the vital and engaging thing it is, and it makes all those dusty old superstitions seem pretty sad in comparison. What a fantastic project! I hope it does not get bogged down in any more political bickering, or is that too much to ask?

OK. I'll accept that the above explanation is adequate to explain the most recent cost overrun.

But what about all the other cost overruns since the project was announced as described by the September 11th, 2002 New York Times (NYT) article "Next Generation Space Telescope Chosen to Peer into Past" when it was expected to cost $824.8 million USD and scheduled for launch in 2010.

The first large formal budget increase (after a series of incremental and largely unpublicized increases) was in 2005, following an "independent" review from JWST contractor Northrop Grumman and the NASA science instruments and support (ISIM) team for the JWST. According to the James Webb Space Telescope Project History website (part of the Space Telescope Science Institute), this first major review was a "financial shock" with costs rising from a pre-review estimate of about $2 billion to 3.5 billion USD and with the expected launch date pushed back to "no earlier than June 2013.

By 2010 the project had taken up so much of the US space budget, that it was impacting on other, arguably just as useful science projects.

For example, the August 12th, 2010 Spaceflight Now article "NASA says JWST cost crunch impeding new missions" reported that "much of NASA's funding for astrophysics missions is being gobbled up by the James Webb Space Telescope," which is now the "the $5 billion successor to the Hubble Space Telescope."

And there has been more since then. For an overview of the issue and links to primary sources, check out….

A note from my source:

[I]t looks great! It may be the only public place with the full story.

Please help spread this information if you care about the future of NASA astrophysics.

So the new, "awful", cost is $24 ea. And this is terrible. As compared to a month's worth of war in Iraq (at about $10 billion), which is no problem at all. Our priorities are not sane.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

Chuck Black asks

But what about all the other cost overruns since the project was announced as described by the September 11th, 2002 New York Times (NYT) article "Next Generation Space Telescope Chosen to Peer into Past" when it was expected to cost $824.8 million USD and scheduled for launch in 2010.

I'm sorry, the increase from that number is not an overrun, it's an underbid. HST cost $2.5 billion to build and launch; anyone who thought we could make something 10 times bigger and more complex for 1/4 that much was a fool of the first division. A simple comparison to the cost of Hubble says if we get JWST for less than $10 billion, we're getting a bargain.

I remain unconvinced that there has been any significant mismanagement beyond not funding it at a rate that makes sense. And of course the original underbid, but I lay the blame for that squarely on congress. Unless you bid stupidly low, you get nothing. Nobody should be fooled by stupidly low bids, but they are, so that's the way it works. Worked for the Iraq war too, didn't it?

Delays on these huge projects is always bad news. Many of the experts involved may move on to other jobs, retire, or even drop dead. If the experts are still alive to work on the project when necessary, it can take months of poring over the documentation just to get a feel for the state of things when you left it and what needs to be done next. Unfortunately such half-assed management of projects seems to be typical; it's not limited to NASA. Internal politics within various contractors can also lead to huge expenses and even outright failure. It might sound funny, but I've seen so many ads for bids on the design and manufacture of specialized test equipment for satellites where the successful bidder would essentially be expected to write up the requirements documentation, design, assemble, and test the equipment within a month of the ad appearing. Needless to say, no one's stupid enough to waste time bidding on such projects.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

There is no question about the scientific importance of JWST. There is also no question that fabrication of the telescope assembly is more than half done. But integration & test of this enormous facility, which has to be tested at low temperatures in a layout that simulates 0-g, as well as the fabrication of the spacecraft part adds a lot to the total cost yet to be committed. No, the total facility is not even half done right now. Not even halfway to launch.

The issue right now is less finger pointing about the costs (that will come ...), but who's going to pay to finish it? Why should other science disciplines at NASA or any other NASA disciplines foot the bill? That's what's going to happen. No new money will be added to the NASA account to not only restore the old JWST line ($375M/yr), but the extra $300-400M/yr it now needs to see launch in 2018.

Let me get this straight. You're saying the the latest fiscal train wreck on JWST is the fault of Congress for not adequately bailing out the program on their earlier fiscal train wreck? Perhaps Congress was simply irresponsible for not pulling the plug on it then.

As I've been saying termination of JWST isn't about termination of astronomical science. It's about termination of JWST science. That science would have been grand, but the flagrant cost abuses make the mission far less inspirational to the public, and give the U.S. far less science "leadership" than it's advocates would wish for. There are other missions that promised to do grand science -- LISA, SIM, and maybe now WFIRST, that aren't going to happen because of JWST.

The other NASA science communities that have to shoulder the burden here are eventually going to come back and point at the Astrophysics Division as a convenient reservoir to fund their own (slightly miscosted, maybe?) flagship missions. So as JWST steals money from them, they mortgage space astrophysics.

This is a really ugly situation, and what makes it especially ugly is the "JWST at all costs!" line from what appears to be an astronomical community that is clueless about the costs.

By Heinrich Monroe (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

Ethan, I think you are under the mistaken notion that the purpose of NASA is to do science or explore space. The purpose of NASA is to funnel money to big contractors who then funnel money to lobbiests who funnel money to congressmen.

Any science that gets done along the way is an accident.


"The purpose of NASA is to funnel money to big contractors.
Conspiracy theories are just that. Most of their followers are more often less educated, non-science majors. Science in general does not support any conspiracy theories. This one in particular is laughable concerning those cynics that believe such rubbish. NASA's purpose is totally unrelated to who is making money. They simply have a budget. There will always be people with less scruples that will try to take illegal advantage of every situation.

Big contractors have lobbyists as they should. A lobbyist's job is to sell the merits of his client to legislators. If they throw in payola and dancing girls to make the sale, this is not legal, as you might know :)

Where there is money involved there will always be people ready to take the gamble and violate the law. This is human nature and related to every enterprise where the system can be abused.

Ethan, this is a very unfortunate article you wrote.

First, there are MANY NASA missions that you haven't written about, Chandra, Spitzer, and Compton to name the OTHER 3 Great Observatories that went with Hubble.

Secondly, you fail to address Chuck Black's point: The original project was WAY underbid and everyone at NASA knew that. Most projects are asked to drop costs and components to stay in budget. Yes, most projects do go over budget, but few start so poorly underbid as JWST. There was no possible way that the telescope as planned at the time could be completed and operated at the cost of $500M as it was originally proposed.

Thirdly, by supporting the huge cost overruns at JWST, it takes away from several other areas of NASA that DO need support. I would hate to throw good money after bad, and I would hate to toss what we do have, but we can't accept that this is the government causing the cost overruns. It all goes back to the original underbid.

I sure hope the JWST gets funded, placed in orbit, and functions as designed.

That statement brings to mind the recent failure of the Russian supply rocket and the earlier Shuttle disaster during launch.

Which brings to mind the fact that the HST mirrors were incorrectly ground, and the Mars probe that failed because
somebody programmed in metric rather than inches.

Is it wise to invest $10B into such a risky venture?

Why not? The U.S gladly dumps $10B per month into ill-conceived wars with Muslim radicals, with no discernable positive results in sight.

We need to get big science projects out of the spectre that they could be cancelled by congress next year. Congress cannot legally create a binding resolution ensuring funding for a project over its lifetime. Therefore, it makes little sense to ask congress to pay out every year.

Instead, big projects should create a trust-like legal structure that will take a lump sum when the project is approved, invest it during the project's lifetime, and manage payouts. Any money remaining would be returned, and any shortfalls would require another trip to congress (and probably would be unlikely to be funded). This would result in more accurate accounting, and ensure the stability and completion of scientific projects.

By Bob McElrath (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

There are some wrinkles with the JWST underbudgeting. If I recall correctly, accounting rules were changed so that projects had to start budgeting in the cost of the launch, and had to include a 30%(or so?) contingency in the budget. So, a project that was bid at cost $X to start with, was suddenly $(1.3*X + Launch), even if all went as planned. This doesn't explain everything by a long shot, but it contributes.

Part of the mismanagement was about not giving the project access to the contingency funds when they actually needed them. You can't just keep pushing the contingency money to the out years -- sometimes you actually have to spend it. If you're remodeling the kitchen, and the plumbing contractor needs and extra 2K to deal with something, you better fork it over to avoid having the carpenters waiting around, drumming their fingers on your dime, while they wait for the sink to be installed.

If we lose JWST then NASA pretty much has nothing new and interesting to offer the astronomical community. There is simply no instrument like the JWST, especially for mid-IR work. It should be an excellent complement to the data set of the Herschel space observatory as well as providing very high resolution images throughout a region of the infrared which is simply not accessible from the earth's surface. Cutting the program would be a huge waste of money. I don't understand the government's proclivity to axe a project simply because the budget estimate was too low. No one is psychic and projects like the JWST do require the development of a hell of a lot of new stuff. It seems the government is happy to prop up large enterprises with trillion dollar bailouts, dump hundreds of billions more money into wars we shouldn't have started, but a few billion to finish a fantastic piece of technology which will allow us to learn a lot more about our universe? Meh. If anyone wants to rank cost blowout, remember Dubbyah's "days, not weeks - months, not years" speech about his Iraq war. Nice short and cheap war Dubbyah!

By MadScientist (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

Great article, I've already contacted all my rep's in Washington, seems as they mostly just don't want to spend any more money on 'democrat' projects, that have as expected, gone way over budget and are way behind schedual.

By Steve Gray (not verified) on 08 Sep 2011 #permalink

So for the cost of the "war" in the middle east for 7 days (7 DAYS), we could finish this telescope, build another, and operate both for 5 years? Am I reading this correctly? Nice priorities from our leadership. /cry

O what a tangled Webb we weave!

From a rational point of view, the total path of JWST funding decisions make no sense, from the original underbid to cancelling with large sums spent and substantial completion of some components. It's irrational to spend $7B on a few weeks of a pointless and progress-free war instead of years of inspirational science and improved engineering technologies.

HOWEVER--a general comment, and since I don't know enough to judge it's not necessarily directed at the project management of JWST: it is the job of the senior scientific management of a project to understand that decisions never get made rationally. To understand that Congressfolk will nearly always prefer to fund wars than science. To understand they make decisions based on rumors and stories and instinct and dollars, and not on carefully considered reason. It's the senior management's job to understand how decisions do get made and position the project within that actual funding milieu.

And it's also their job to communicate to project scientists that risks are being taken to secure funding, and that one of the risks scientists must live with is the risk that funding will disappear one day for wholly arbitrary, political, irrational, historical, or bureacractic reasons. And to communicate that taking on that sort of risk in the first place is preferable to giving up on day 1.

Once the money is spent, at ground level, most everyone is of good faith and working to try to get the technical details right. And in that sense, most of the money spent on any large project is not conspiratorial hogwash. But how does the decision get made to spend the money in the first place? (There's a lot hiding behind the innocuous-sounding statement "NASA just has a budget to spend.") I strongly suggest that at the level at which big ($BB) budget decisions get made (as opposed to the level at which actual work on those projects happens), daedulus2's description of the decision process is probably a significant component of reality.

By Andrew Foland (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

I've mentioned this before on Phil's blog and it goes out to all you naysayers. Here is the Joint Strike Fighter project for comparison

Cost overruns
On February 1, 2010 Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates announced that, due to delays and other problems with the JSF development program, he was removing Major General David R. Heinz from command of the program and would withhold $614 million in bonuses from Lockheed Martin.[13] On February 16, 2010 Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn announced that the program will be delayed one year.[14] According to some estimates, overruns could increase the program's total costs to $388 billion, a 50% increase from the initial price tag.[15] Many of the program's financial and technical complications result from the Marine version of the JSF, capable of vertical take-offs and landings.[15] While significant, such overruns are by no means unique in what have become known as aerospace megaprojects.

Yeah I think our priorities are a little warped.

Development of a killing machine, no problem, development of a learning machine, big problem.

By Doug Little (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

The problems go further back I think and reading NASA's own history on JWST is revealing. ( ) Many changes of direction.
This project appears to be a poster child of how not to manage a large technically challenging project. The Mars Science Laboratory appears to be another.
Yet some projects like Grail and Mars Rovers seem to come in at or under budget and do great science. I'd like to see an analysis compare and contrast the effectiveness of the various project management styles employed and a set of guidelines produced that would be mandated to be followed in future projects.

Getting the dollars is hard enough in the first place but hearing tales of waste and incompetence is likely to put a big damper on enthusiasm for funding future large science projects.

This is rocket science and is something the USA has excelled in in the past and I hope the voices of reason are heard and heeded to produce successful projects in the future.

Why gold for the mirrors? Why not silver? Gold has a color. Silver does not.

Or even platinum? Or any other "white" very reflective metal? It's not like anything will tarnish in LEO.

I add my voice to the chorus of those who think that however poorly the JWST project was managed, you cannot justify killing it while spending 100 times that on a fighter jet, as if air superiority was an issue for the US. I'm not even talking about wars or bailouts...

@Juice: Remember, though, that gold is that colour because it absorbs blue light, while reflecting light in the red-to-green range. Since this is an infrared telescope, with its shortest wavelength in the orange area of the spectrum ("from visible, orange light deep into the infrared," as Ethan said), the blue absorption doesn't matter at all. I have no idea what the reflectivity of gold is like in the infrared, but I would assume it's pretty good, or they wouldn't have used it.

Beyond that, remember that the mirrors are spending an indefinite amount of time in atmosphere here on the ground before launch, during which time silver would certainly tarnish. Also possibly, their might be differences between how well gold and silver can be bound to the beryllium. I have no idea whether that is a factor, but it could be.

By Randy Owens (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

And by "their might be," I mean "there might be," of course. :p

By Randy Owens (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

@Harbles: You're looking at the early days of people tossing around ideas for the JWST. I remember thinking at the time "don't these people know what the hell they want to do?" It's typical of large research projects in general. I'm always one of the "bad guys" saying things like "we'd better pick a small number of things to do rather than try to do everything imaginable, otherwise we should save all our time and money and just kill the project now." Some colleagues of mine have simply walked away from projects and said things like "this is going to be a failure; you don't have enough sense to limit your ideas to what is feasible" (and they've been right all the time). Since then the JWST has whittled down the ideas and settled for a good number of instruments. Even with the long-established GOES series of instruments, in each new generation many months are spent at meetings discussing changes to instrumentation and the merits of changes proposed. If you were to look only at the numerous proposals you'd get the idea that the instrument will never be built.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

NASA ought to hire some ex-pentagon bureacrats to help them pitch the whole over budget/reduced expectations/stretched timeline thing. I don't think there has been a DoD procurement for a major weapons system that hasn't been awash in red and schedule-slip. If they can squeeze out a hangar queen like the F-22 they ought to be able to fund a measly $9b space telescope!

If NASA had said "when we're done with it, we can de-orbit it and use it for a 25,000mph kinetic strike against one target of your choosing" they'd have the CIA trying to give the 50 space telescopes!

Rename the damned thing the Ronald Reagan Memorial Star Wars Project and get it launched.

By Randomfactor (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

gold is the best IR reflector,and lowest emitter, I always wanted a gold jacket for that reason - best heat protector. Thats why lots of spacecraft (Eagle 1969 incl) wrapped in gold foil.

Agree that we can't allow JWST to crowd out other wonderful bad the deorbit idea wouldn't really work as a means of getting defense dept/industry backing. Maybe when DoD funding is reduced as it should be, we can allocate a bit more for NASA and science.

By Greg LeGore (not verified) on 10 Sep 2011 #permalink

It's not about one or another NASA project crowding out another.

It's not about a political budget process that uses underbidding as a tool of corporate nepotism.

It's not that scientist are not very politcal whereas politicians are political.

It's not about the blame game.

It's not even about money and the economy.

It's simply about lack-of-visiion and lack-of-courage, i.e. politics as usual.

Yes, to do science takes courage and vision.

Congress does not deserve the miserly compliment.

By CaptainCurt (not verified) on 10 Sep 2011 #permalink

With the apparent cost cutting measures like shutting down Tevatron, removing funding for JWST, the US govt might save a few million dollars but the myopic policy will soon retard scientific research advancements of not just the USA but of the entire humanity. The lack of a long-term view denies the scientific progress we greatly deserve and hope for in the next 10-20 years. It's really sad that the US govt would rather throw its war money in petty in-fighting than invest in the progress of humanity.

Why the hell are you complaining about the cost of scientific, technological advancement?

The Nation just spent 6.6 trillion in this decade of war, and counting....

According to wolfram alpha, that is....825 JWSTs.

Everything in these comments, from blaming Dubya (again, still, for crap's sake) to fairly more thoughtful items like "we have such a short timeline" makes me think the science community, so interested in such important humanity-serving projects - are regrettably, permanently out-to-lunch.

To wit: Has anyone noticed that (insert pointless patronizing partison Republican or Democrat comment here) that WE ARE OUT OF MONEY and decisions of a budgetary nature have to be made?

Welcome to the real world; where money actually costs something.

I could not believe it when I heard the news that the SSC was canceled back in 1993. As others have pointed out, this bickering over the cost of such an important instrument is insane. Now, why is this happening?

The public is extremely frustrated with the state of the economy, and many do not appreciate what the sciences offer. And war, with its powerful promoters appears necessary, whether you believe it is because of terrorism, or Peak Oil and Peak Water.

The modern world has built itself upon a very temporary energy source, and the scientific community has so far failed to solve this problem. Whether it is our physicists not having succeeded in developing an abundant and cheap source of carbon-free energy, or our social scientists who haven't been able to "treat" our leadership's insanity, those of us who know what must be done have the responsibility to respond to this crisis.

Luckily, thanks to nature and Alvin Weinberg, we have a possible technical solution to the energy crisis with the molten salt reactor. If the scientific community can convince the public that they need this particular technology immediately to provide the necessary net energy gain for ample wealth creation, and that the best way to approach this is to join the Thorium Race, then we may expect that our diversions will be better funded in the future. If not, then I doubt we'll be able to afford our "expensive hobbies", but surely far more funds will be spent on war and destruction.

I could not believe it when I heard the news that the SSC was canceled back in 1993. As others have pointed out, this bickering over the cost of such an important instrument is insane. Now, why is this happening?

1) The instrument is too expensive.
2) Poor management.

The modern world has built itself upon a very temporary energy source, and the scientific community has so far failed to solve this problem.

There's at least a century of research that can with modest changes in the economic climate transition from "failure" to the next means of energy generation or transportation. Molten salt reactors are merely one of many such technologies.

I find it remarkable that anyone can conclude that there's a funding problem with science from the very poor example of the SSC.

Similarly, resource depletion is not that significant. For example, the western part of the US has two centuries of history of rapid resource depletion (precious metal mining, fur trapping and buffalo hunting, open range grazing, lumber, oil drilling, etc). And what do they have to show for it? One of the most remarkable and vibrant economies of history with jewels such as Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and a huge network of national parks.

By Karl Hallowell (not verified) on 10 Sep 2011 #permalink

Just read in this month's issue of National Defense magazine that the DOD did a crash program to build Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect them from IED's. They worked in Iraq where there are flat roads but not very well in Afghanistan where there are essentially no roads and all mountains. Since 2008 27,000 vehicles have been built the total cost with maintenance: $45Billion. Nearly 15,000 in Afghanistan. A large number not in use because they are too big for narrow streets and can't go over rough terrain. The new all-terrain model goes for $1.4M each. Glad they have them. $45Billion well spent. $10B for the JWST doesn't bother me.

By Dr.Finagle (not verified) on 10 Sep 2011 #permalink

Terminate the project under NASA, sell it to Elon Musk at a penny per thousand dollars, and he should be able to get it to orbit by 2016...

By Klompenmaker (not verified) on 10 Sep 2011 #permalink

"Terminate the project under NASA, sell it to Elon Musk at a penny per thousand dollars, and he should be able to get it to orbit by 2016..."

And, exactly how will Elon Musk earn a space tourism profit from the JWST? That said, who needs the JWST with all the boundary shattering science pouring out of the ISS?

By Rick Evans (not verified) on 10 Sep 2011 #permalink

Dear Senator ________________,

NASA men are geeks now as they were geeks to begin with, stop expecting warriors out of these folk. The DoD knows its job is important, and so it's unwavering in its request for funds. NASA has not this kind of absolute conviction, nor should it.

It was said to me long ago that when you try to low-ball your price-tag, you will only devalue your product. I understand there are many issues stemming from the politics on this matter, but then attack them politically, not fiscally.

Let all who have shown consistent results be awarded government moneys on an individually judged basis. Appropriate the necessarily funds for them to complete their missions as you would the DoD.

After all, the DoD will never exude such knowledge that broaches so close to humanity's self.

All Apologies,

Dear mewa

A very interesting and informative post. However, it does contain a very misleading statement that JWST

...originally slated to be a $5.1 Billion project

In fact, as subsequent commenters have pointed out, the original cost of JWST (or NGST as it was then called) was less than ONE BILLION.

I suggest that if it was known 10 years ago that the cost would grow even to $5.1 billion then it never would have gone ahead in the first place.

@Karl Hallowell #38

There's at least a century of research that can with modest changes in the economic climate transition from "failure" to the next means of energy generation or transportation. Molten salt reactors are merely one of many such technologies.

I do not share your optimism. For reasons of energy density weâre left looking at nuclear options, and of those the plutonium economy has issues in terms of safety, scalability, and cost. ITER may very well prove too costly, and it is certainly a few decades into the future. Other experimental fusion projects are too uncertain at this point to expect them to act as replacements (perhaps you know something different).

I find it remarkable that anyone can conclude that there's a funding problem with science from the very poor example of the SSC.

I am not denying that there were not major management issues with SSC (there were). But how likely would its cancellation have been if the economy was stronger? And with its cancellation, the United States gave up its lead in accelerators in a major blow to fundamental science.

Similarly, resource depletion is not that significant. [various examples omitted]

I suppose the rising costs of oil extraction and its effect on the economy is not significant? Rising costs have so far not led to major breakthroughs, and in fact official energy policy has recognized that there are no easy solutions- that future costs will continue to rise as a myriad of renewable technologies supposedly make up the gap. What kind of science policy are we going to have in a future of rising costs and economic ruin? Supposing we make it through this trying time, some time after the transition to the Thorium Era, historians may be tempted to look at this period of resource depletion, and conclude with hindsight that it âis not that significantâ, but they will be missing a fundamental insight into what was happening at the time.

Good article. What a shame! If the USA is to maintain its scientific lead, the project is worth every penny. Maybe it is time for NASA to seek other supplementary funders to top off the difference - Canada, France, GB, Russia and even China. Or even the oil-rich Arab states. Some American politicians are so short-sighted about keeping the scientific momentum going. Thinking outside the box, NASA could also start a world-wide public fundraising campaign -- now would that not be a slap in the face for the fat-cat elected politicians.

Interesting blog. Equally illusive as the âsolutionâ to our future energy requirements, is the solution to our procurement process for large, complex, difficult, multi-year projects. Cost plus procurements provide little incentive for remaining within budget and on schedule. Fixed cost procurements provide incentives to cut quality and take risky âshortcutsâ to remain on schedule. I wish I knew the answer to the procurement puzzle. Another complication, is that America does not seem inclined toward a âconsensusâ regarding our national priorities (defense, science, entitlements, energy, education, health care, â¦). It is very difficult to develop and execute a vision for our future without a national commitment for a prioritized funding requirement.

By Steve Thompson (not verified) on 11 Sep 2011 #permalink

I think people need to go look up the "sunk cost fallacy" on Wikipedia.

I'd state the problem as: "Would it be worth it to build a James Webb Space Telescope CLONE for about 3.5B*, TODAY?". It seems that there are these leftover parts from a failed IR telescope attempt, just laying around, that we could use to defray costs.

Sunk costs, money spent, is gone. Congress's fault, NASA's fault, Big Jake's fault, it's gone.

*Optimistic, I suspect.

"There are other missions that promised to do grand science -- LISA, SIM, and maybe now WFIRST, that aren't going to happen because of JWST."

The remaining JWST budget certainly wouldn't fund all three of these (particularly allowing for their own cost overruns.) But even if it would, I think it's very hard to argue that the total contribution to astrophysics of all three put together would be even close to JWST's. In the end, LISA and SIM would be missions covering a few areas of astronomy (and producing data useful only to a subset of astronomers.) WFIRST is a more complicated case, but the value of low-resolution wide-field near-IR images with no way to do high-resolution or spectroscopic followup seems low as well. This is particularly true since the only big ground-based project likely to occur (LSST) is also a very-wide-field imaging-only facility.

In exoplanets, to pick an example, SIM and WFIRST are at best refinements of Kepler - information about only about the presence and statistics of planets; what the field needs is characterization - spectra, temperatures, atmospheric properties - which JWST could potentially provide.

Mistakes were definitely made, but they key question right now ought to be what is the best way to spend the remainign cost to get the most scientific return. $4B to launch a 6-m diffraction-limited telescope by 2018 is a bargain.

While I think the JWST needs to be finished and launched, I can't help wonder how the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was built for about US$4.5billion and this thing is going to be about double that... Ok so my LHC figure doesn't include operating budget but you get the point. The LHC is a HUGE project that must dwarf the JWST right? Is the huge cost of JWST really not due to it being a typical US govt project whereas the LHC was a consortium of many international institutes with a fundamental need for budget restraint? Imagine if the JWST was being built by such instead of NASA... should make you wonder.

By Arne Hermann (not verified) on 11 Sep 2011 #permalink

Harbles, @22:

This project appears to be a poster child of how not to manage a large technically challenging project.

no, it honestly doesn't even come close to that. those poster children are all owned by the Pentagon, and will be for the foreseeable future. if you think the JWST is badly planned or badly financed, then you REALLY need to take a look into how our weapons systems are procured.

Steve, @36:

Has anyone noticed that (insert pointless patronizing partison Republican or Democrat comment here) that WE ARE OUT OF MONEY and decisions of a budgetary nature have to be made?

who is this "we", kemosabe? the U.S. government cannot run out of U.S. dollars unless it deliberately decides to do so. part of the very definition of "fiat money" includes the fact that the government creates the stuff at will. we're not on the gold standard anymore.

Peter, @44:

I suggest that if it was known 10 years ago that the cost would grow even to $5.1 billion then it never would have gone ahead in the first place.

this assumes that anyone in any position to influence the project, back then, believed even for a second that that budget was credible. as has been pointed out, the $2.5bil price tag of the Hubble was public, even then. the long, long tradition of underbidding and overrunning in government procurement projects both civil and military could not possibly have escaped anyone old enough to run for office. frankly, to assume that any representative took that figure seriously for even a heartbeat, is to postulate that particular representative is a mindless cretin.

which some of them surely are. but all 535 of them? that beggars even MY belief.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 12 Sep 2011 #permalink

Being one of the people "laid off" due to the budget situation, and seeing ALL the mirrors delivered, and now waiting, it's disgusting to think that all the people involved in the production of this telescope, many of which considered the project to be their "swan song", will have all the work flushed down the toilet, even though the work on the most important aspect of the telescope is finished. Congress, in it's obstructionist approach to dealing with ALL ISSUES, coupled with the general lack of "belief" in science has no concept or care that they are wasting one of the most significant scientific opportunities, just to say they "stopped a boondoggle", when if fact, if JWST is canceled, they will have wasted the majority of work and money spent to date, strictly for political reasons. We won't even bring into this discussion the multiple benefits and advancements realized already just from lessons and technology gained from the production phases to date, as applied to medical advancements for example. Not finishing and deploying the JWST would be one of the biggest waists seen in history, strictly for political reasons. Where's the logic, physical or otherwise in that? The people who have worked on the program so far, and since been "let go" are DONE, seeing, against optimistic views of the powers that be have no interest in actually accomplishing anything significant to further scientific knowledge. Coincidently, a large portion of these highly experienced and talented individuals have gone on to other, less productive endeavors, for example, there's a LOT of new restaurants popping up owned and run by what used to be scientists, if they have been able to find ANY kind of employment, scientifically based or not. This underlines how truly disgusting things REALLY are.

By M. Adelman (not verified) on 13 Sep 2011 #permalink

Gold is more reflective over the range of wavelengths of interest. That's why it's the coating used over the beryllium substrates.

NASA's budget is 16-17B/yr, most of which funds the infrastructure and programs associated with the space shuttle and space station. Science gets 1-2B/yr (including JWST, all the telescopes mentioned above, the rovers, the moon water missions, and pretty much everything NASA does that the public is actually interested in). The cynic says that the shuttle/space station exist mainly to service each other, both without significant merit on their own. The space station in particular is doing relatively little work of interest relative to its >$40B price tag. The cynic would also say that those two programs, that mainly are located in the SE US, are essentially jobs programs for Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.

In this context, a discussion of priorities, even within the NASA budget, is appropriate. NASA does not program its budget, congress does. Congress says build space stations at >$40B, despite the fact that the space station is not of significant value (IMO), so NASA does it.

As with most things, the ultimate responsibility belongs with the person in the mirror. If we want Congress to prioritize science over jobs programs, we need to advocate for congress to do so. I do so every chance I get.

The buzz about killing JWST is mostly hyperbole though. Without missions like JWST, NASA ultimately will have no value to the public, and will die. South eastern states won't get a free ride programming most NASA dollars into local pork. They're really not that short sighted.

By Mirror Guy (not verified) on 15 Sep 2011 #permalink

My bad. The link Chuck Black posted @3 is incomplete.

Reguarding The James-Weeb Telescope: I have been following this project for years. the question is not why to look, but what are the risks and more important, what is the payback?
Risks...More $ then we have to spend..Spend the multi billions on helping the people of the world to grow up, survive the wars of the people of this earth, whoever the might be!
The scientist of the world, I consider myself to be one, should not do this just for ther self enjoyment, they will be gone by the time this program is ever finished! They just want to be shown in the history books of the next century. they will not be alive to see it but the will be in "book"
What a waste of money, that could be used to help people of this earth who will need it in the years to come!

And what if it does not fully work, high probabillity, people could not go there and fix it, the time on an attempt would be well beyond the life span of a human!!!!

What a waste

By bob vansickle (not verified) on 22 Jan 2013 #permalink