The Just Wait Space Telescope

It could have been so grand: ideated in 1996, supported by NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” project management culture in the 90s, and riding on the wave of euphoria from Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope was supposed to be the Next Generation Space Telescope. In a tribute to the NASA administrator who oversaw the Mercury, Gemini and beginning of the Apollo program, it was named James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). 22 years later, yet another delay and a potential price tag exceeding $8 billion, on the surface, it seems like a “too big to fail” project. The public sector is not known for considering sunk cost but just to barrel ahead no matter the cost of good science. Alright, that might be a bit too derogative. Let’s try to analyze the situation objectively, like the good amateur scientists we are:

Hailed as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, (HST), the JWST science mission will observe in the infrared spectrum between 0.6 to 28 micrometer wavelength. For more info about electromagnetic wavelength please join David Kiefer’s ongoing spring course. Its primary mirror of 6.5 meters and 18-hexagonal shaped segments, is 3x larger than Hubble’s, and supposed to be 100x more capable.

It is primarily an infrared telescope and infrared astronomy has the advantage of observing distant objects, very old objects that started to shine shortly after the Big Bang, but whose light and wavelength, due to the 13.8 billion years of passing, have dimmed and lengthened.

Longer wavelength = older light

The natural enemy of infrared telescopes is heat, because the radiating environment smears out the infrared light and hence they should be kept very cold. JWST will be operating in the 40K temperature range and at LaGrange Point 2, which is 1.5 million km from the Earth and pointing away from the Sun. The science instruments are called the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) and include the following:

  • Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) – 0.6 to 5 micrometers; will detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies in the process of formation, stars in nearby galaxies, young stars in the Milky Way and Kuiper Belt objects
  • Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec)– can obtain spectra of more than 100 objects simultaneously
  • Mid-infrared Instrument (MIRI) – 5 to 28 micrometers; takes wide-field images and narrow-field spectra and operates at 7 degrees Kelvin
  • Fine Guidance Sensor/Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS)– 0.8 to 5 micrometers; spectroscopic modes for investigating distant Universe and exoplanets

This lineup of science instruments promises to do frontier science research and give us a glimpse into the biggest questions in cosmology and astronomy. But at what cost?

I do not work in government and do not possess superior knowledge about the inner workings of such a long and tremendously challenging and costly project. But let’s remember one thing here: the HST’s mirror was ground to the wrong specifications due to technicians who incorrectly positioned one optical test element off by 1.3 millimeters and worse yet “rejected falsifying information from independent tests, believed no problems existed, and reported only good news.” Humans can screw up everything, if not properly supervised.

As a comparison to the JWST, the idea for Hubble was germinated in 1972 with an estimated development cost of $300 million. When it was launched into orbit in 1990, 18 years later, it had to undergo costly repair missions with the help of the Space Shuttle outside the regular service missions. Luckily for us, Hubble orbits Earth at 336 miles. All in all, the estimated cost of Hubble is $9 billion, which is 30x the original price tag. To be fair, we should factor out the irregular service missions so let’s just cut $2 billion, a reasonable number based on articles found, and we are at $7 billion, still about 23x the original cost.

As a comparison, the JWST was ideated in 1996 as the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) with an estimated cost of $500 million and a projected launch in 2011. Here we are in 2018, with a projected launch year of 2020 and an estimated price tag of $8 billion (the amount approved by Congress), 16x more than the original budget proposal. Why?

Maybe now one of the 9th independent review boards can shed some visible light on it? Out of the several reviews, I suggest you might want to review the October 2010 review, that determined the causes of cost growth and schedule delay, a breeze of a report of 51 pages, compared to some of the other documents relating to JWST, which are of biblical length. Initially, NASA assigned a 70% probability to a launch in 2014! However, the independent review board concluded that “the problems causing cost growth and schedule delays on the JWST Project are associated with budgeting and program management, not technical performance.” Humans again…

Now fast forward to March 2018: the next Independent Review Board will commence its 8-week review to determine if JWST can meet its most recently revised launch schedule of May 2020. I predict that the answers will be yes, with a 30% probability.

Thinking further ahead to the next great budget black hole, WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope), with an estimated price tag of $2.7 billion and a projected launch for the mid-2020s, was hailed by scientists as the “highest-priority space mission for the 2020s in the 2010 Decadal Survey.” You might have guessed, JWST was hailed by scientists in the 2001 Decadal Survey “highest priority to the construction and launch of Next Generation Space Telescope.” What will happen next? Just Wait.