Friday, September 9, 2011

Budget Fight

As I'm sure most readers of this blog know, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) -- the successor to the Hubble Telescope -- is seriously over budget.  The latest estimate puts the cost to complete the telescope at $8B, with only $3.5B of that already spent.  Based on the budget proposed for JWST for next year, it would take almost a decade to complete development.  (You may see a JWST budget estimate of $8.7B, which includes $0.7B to operate the telescope after launch.)

NASA has proposed to the White House (specifically, the Office of Management and Budget) that it 'tax' it's other programs, both science and manned spaceflight, to increase the budget for JWST and launch it around 2018.  There's no news, so far as I know, publicly available about the White House's reaction.  The House of Representatives voted to kill JWST.

A number of leading planetary scientists have just published a strongly worded editorial stating, "We individually and together reject the premise that JWST must be restored at all costs... Without additional funds to NASA, JWST should not be restored unless and until an open science community assessment is made of the value of what will be gained and what will be lost across the entire NASA science portfolio."

A less strongly worded letter from Dr. David Alexander, Chair, American Astronomical Society, Solar Physics Division (SPD), echoes some of the same concerns, "The SPD fully supports the science goals of the JWST and the priorities of our colleagues in astronomy and astrophysics; however, it is extremely worrisome that the proposed solution to the problem will further reduce the ability of the other divisions within the NASA Science Mission Directorate to accomplish their own nationally sanctioned scientific programs."

The journal Nature's News Blog has some additional analysis of these letters and their motivation.

Editorial Thoughts: The problems in JWST's funding comes at the same time as NASA's manned spaceflight program faces it's own budget challenges.  The programs on NASA's plate simply appear to be more expensive than it's current budget can pay for.  I don't know what the least wrong solution is, but the following thoughts may suggest how difficult the choices may be.

JWST promises to continue Hubble's revolution in the understanding of the universe.  Here's a list of the JWST program's major science programs, copied from the its website:

  • The End of the Dark Ages: First Light and Reionization seeks to identify the first bright objects that formed in the early Universe, and follow the ionization history.
  • Assembly of Galaxies will determine how galaxies and dark matter, including gas, stars, metals, physical structures (like spiral arms) and active nuclei evolved to the present day.
  • The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems focuses on the birth and early development of stars and the formation of planets.
  • Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life studies the physical and chemical properties of solar systems (including our own) and where the building blocks of life may be present.

What might be lost from the planetary program if it's budget is cut?  The planetary Decadal Survey prioritized its programs as:

  1. Research funding
  2. Discovery missions (4-5 in this decade)
  3. New Frontiers missions (3 in this decade)
  4. U.S contribution to the NASA/ESA 2018 rover

If NASA were to cut starting the planetary program starting with the lowest priority, it would appear that the 2018 rover would be the first to be cut.  That mission would place a second rover (after the soon to be launched Mars Science Laboratory) with a highly capable analytical laboratory on Mars.  The mission also would collect and cache samples for possible return to Earth.

JWST and the 2018 Mars rover both would be great missions.  How would you make the decision?  If you are an American citizen, you might want to share your choice with your senators and congressman.

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