Fans of the beleaguered James Webb Space Telescope - the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope - will be sad to hear that "a new independent cost analysis shows it will take another $3.6 billion to get the telescope ready to fly in 2018." For those keeping tabs on the final bill, we're looking at a total mission cost of $8.7 billion by now, putting the project's future in peril yet again.
This news comes at a time of deep budget cuts and Congressional opposition. The Obama administration has already asked Federal agencies, NASA among them, to plan for 10 percent cuts to their budget effective Oct. 1, 2012. And last month, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee recommended the Webb telescope project be scrapped altogether - a recommendation that was quickly approved by the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
This isn't a question of whether the project is scientifically valuable; it is brute economics that threatens to derail the mission entirely. True, the project has suffered from poor management and large cost over-runs at a time when funding is especially tight. It's fair to ask NASA to justify the hefty price tag. And I get the need for national belt-tightening, I really do, but I still come down firmly on the side of science in this instance, as do many others.
Folks have been making the case for the Webb telescope quite eloquently over the last couple of months, such as this spirited defense from Julianne Dalcanton of Cosmic Variance:
Yes, JWST has cost more than was planned for. But the majority of the cost is now "sunk costs", and a huge fraction of the telescope and instruments actually exist. This is not just a hole that people have been shoveling money into, and not getting anything for - useful stuff is actually built! And working! I would of course prefer that JWST launched on time and under budget, but, given how close we are to the end, I much prefer to go for it. Canceling JWST is not going to usher in a golden age of other space-based science opportunities (the "crowding out theory", where once the shade of JWST is gone, a thousand flowers will bloom). The money will simply be gone from space-based astronomy, and instead of a single tree we can all climb, there will be some smaller pieces of shrubbery.
The latest to speak up for the JWST is Scott Willoughby, guest-blogging at Scientific American. Willoughly has a vested interest, as the vice president and program manager for the JWST program at Northrup-Grummon contracted by NASA to build the thing. But he still makes a strong argument in favor of the mission, citing the creation of high-tech jobs in the aerospace industry - currently facing a potential shortage as the older generation of scientists and engineers retire - and improvements in MRI technology for cancer imaging, for starters.