In the balance: James Webb Space Telescope

We are at the tipping point of losing a potential National treasure, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).


Artist conception James Webb Space telescope

The JWST is a very large telescope to be launched into space to view the universe with ultra high resolution infrared (IR) images.

When launched, it will take its station at the L2 equilibrium point, 1.5 M km on the other side of the Earth from the sun.  It will be in solar orbit but trapped in the Earth’s shadow which will mostly shield it form solar heat radiation.  The JWST will have a heat shield between it and Earth so observations will not be disturbed by planetary heat emission.


JWST – Cong. Wolf cut, Sen. Mikuklski support

The magazine Science is published weekly by the American AAAS.  According to its  2011 Jul15 issue, the current majority of the House Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee (jurisdiction control over NASA)  is opposed to the expenses and timeline currently projected for the program and cut out its funding authorization for the 2012 budget (stating in 2 months).

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va) is Head of the subcommittee and leads the effort to cut off support and end the mission.  Senator Barbara Mikulski is vocal in her urging of reinstatement of the original support.  Sen. Mikulski is a well know supporter of NASA.

In 2000, the National Research Council released its once-every-10-year Decadal Survey in Astronomy  and put the JWST as the #1 priority research instrument.  It was to be  the next generation successor to both the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the Spitzer IR telescope which was not actually launched until 2003 because it was recognized that such an upgrade in size and capability would require a long time to bring to fruition.


person, HST (4.5 m2 area) JWST (25 m2 area)

The JWST will be made up of 18 mirrors of gold plated over beryllium.  The mirror assembly will form a mirror 6.5 m (21 foot) in diameter that will view the universe’s light emission from the visible red 0.6 µm to the far edge of the near IR at 28 µm (the part of the low-energy/long-wavelength spectrum that is the deeper red than visible red light – redder than red). Read our discussion of wavelengths here.

Due to JWST’s huge step in capability, it is called the next generation telescope and the next step after the HST and Spitzer spacre scopes because it is a huge step up in capability.  Actually, the JWST stands between the HST and Sptizer.


JWST has much greater resolution than the HST

Hubble – NASA’s  great observatory for visible light.  JWST will resolve objects 2.7× smaller than the HST can (ratio of diameters) and will see objects 5.5× dimmer  (ratio of areas). 

JWST will replace HST only in the HST’s near IR vision (infrared just a bit redder than visible light);  JWST has no visible light sensitivity.


JWST resolution is much better than Spitzer’s

Spitzer –  NASA’s great observatory for infrared light.  JWST will see objects 7.5× smaller than Spitzer (ratio of diameters) and will see 58× dimmer objects (ratio of areas). 

JWST will not replace the Spitzer scope in Spitzer’s deep IR  range (far from visible range).  The very deep IR range has been replaced by Europe’s next generation scope,  Herschel.

The JWST goal is different from either;  it is to peer through the obscuring haze of intergalactic space and give high resolution images of the earliest events in the visible universe.  Its enhanced capability would, however, give it capability to determine details of our own galaxy, unavailable by any other method.

We are at a  branch-point in astronomical capability.  We can complete this or not.  Currently, we have spent about 3.5 G$ on the program, about half way through.  All the difficult mirrors are done and will be fully calibrated by Fall, 2011.  Launch is currently estimated for 2018-2020, given current NASA funding levels.

Costs are expected to overrun budget by a total of 2× before it is launched.  This cost thing is the sticking point.  If excellence were free, there would be no arguments from anyone.  •  Much of the overrun came from the suite of tests that must be done (fully designed after budget was in place).  HST dropped some costly calibrations from its build schedule, had a focus problem and nearly written off as a failure.  JWST is too far for any human aid, even if that were possible.  It must not launch with a glitch that could have been corrected if someone had tested.     •  Some cost overrun due to facts of life of budget-cut during development phase.

JWST Costs

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Put these costs in the frame of the U.S. budget expenditures.  Our biggest expense are the wars we have been waging since the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan followed by the invasion of Iraq.  For the 9 years through the end of FY 2011, we will have spent 1.227 Trillion Dollars (US) for this task.  This is 136 B$/yr for our wonderful adventure.  Each day represents 373 M$ or a billion US$ every 2.7 days.  (I will not tally deaths.) There is about 3½ B$ left to spend,  about 10 days of an excellent war.

Aside –This is not a hyped up comparison.  This is not arguable – We are clearly willing to sacrifice money, young men and women, and the collateral damage of civilian deaths.   Afghanistan gave us the nice feeling of revenge, though having accomplished this, we have not yet stopped.  The reason for the Iraq excursion is – I do not know.  The standard starting point for such a question is “follow the money!”  We will not do that in this post.

The decision is in the hands of our government.

Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2011 July 27
Listed under   Technology    …thread    Technology > Aerospace
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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7 Responses to In the balance: James Webb Space Telescope

  1. Doug says:

    Framing the costs by U.S. budget expenditures is a silly thing to do. That is to say, look, we’re been grossly incompetent in costing this mission, and management has basically failed us in responsibility. It has done this repeatedly over the last many years. But, oh, it’s so cheap compared to a war, that justifies everything.

    By that measure, EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF MANAGEMENT INCOMPETENCE by our federal government is forgiveable. Well, because it’s all smaller than a big war …

    I’m sorry. I was/sort of am a strong supporter of JWST, but this is just a pretty pathetic argument, and one that, unfortunately, a ball that the JWST advocacy machine is starting to run with. JWST will do profound science, but it won’t do it for a decade or more, and it will largely kill off the active space astrophysics program before that. No, I’m not naive enough to think that killing JWST will make those funds available for other missions. It won’t. But this kind of irresponsibility has to stop. Sometimes you just have to clear the decks.


    • LastTechAge says:

      JJWST is about to die. The reason is that people with the wrong agenda have gotten control. These guys want to kill American technical dominance. “Why” can’t be answered in a short response, but– “follow the money.”

      • More than JWST is on the block. I think at risk is our future as a wold power with independent, thinking citizenry. It is possible to “starve the beast” so deeply that the ever-present succession movements dissolve our continental union. If you have read any of my posts before, you know that i believe that we are truly retreating from our position as dominant technical force. Have been for 30 or more years.

      • Your real issue is – how do you evaluate a discretionary task? Restatement: You have a special project on a task list that is full of tasks to do. How should you judge this task? The way to measure worth of unique discretionary expenditures is to compare it with other discretionary expenditures, not the whole list of things you spend on. .

      I believe this is what I did. Do not look at JWST costs vs retirement packages or medical benefits for all professional soldiers. … or retirement benefits for all who work for the Federal government. [ Federal workers are not the bad guys. Do you know anyone working for government? Most are doing their human-level best to make the system work. A lot of talk-radio chatter take the Timothy McVeigh view – someone who works for the government have no redeeming qualities and deserve to be blown to bits. ]

      • Judge JWST costs by comparing it to one of America’s biggest discretionary costs. This is what I did. Our current wars are completely discretionary. We were not forced to invade Iraq (I did not support). Nor even Afghanistan (I did strongly support, although this could have been handled by a massive incursion to eliminate Al Qaeda). Bush went for Nation building big time, with the popular support of the American people – this defines discretionary. Completing JWST equals 10 days of our excellent adventure in the Middle East.

      • Glad you are a supporter of JWST, glad you knew what it was all about. Not sure what your “clear the decks” mean. But, “pathetic” means listening to the Frank Wolf’s attempt to justify killing the the space program at maturity and before it can start to provide payback. We have investments of over 100 B$ times three (Apollo/Saturn, Shuttle/Booster, ISS). Two of these have been shut down before they were productive and the third is being handed over to foreign governments. (Now that is PATHETIC. Kind of like selling our manufacturing strength to foreign powers such as communist China. [I think like that. After all, I live near Detroit. ])

      We will get a lot from our space program. We, as a nation, will get ZERO from our war. The richest 0.1% do well, though. In fact we (US) got zero return from Lebanon, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (not counting bagging bin Laden). We did end a massive evil in WW-II. War in general can be a justified action, our invasions must be considered “done for fun.”


  2. Doug says:

    JWST is about to die. As you say, it’s because people with the wrong agenda have gotten control You think it’s Congress. I suggest it’s the JWST project managers, whose agenda is not to meet cost, but to pretend that the project can meet budget obligations by simply moving it to the right on the schedule. Those managers have been professionally irresponsible to Congress, the taxpayer, and the science community. Rep. Wolf is just calling them on it. This isn’t about killing good science. It’s about punishing irresponsible management.

    In fact, one can argue about the extent to which JWST, in its budgetary excesses, has sucked up funds that prevented us from starting other, high priority and enormously interesting science missions. SIM? LISA? Those missions are gone, because of the huge JWST cost overruns. Maybe we should evaluate JWST overuns with regard to those missions it killed?

    That we get a lot from our space program, and zero from our war, seems obvious, but it strangely not self evident to the people paying for them. Maybe it’s not that obvious.

    Your penultimate paragraph is a bit silly. We shut down Apollo/Saturn before it could be productive? Balderdash. That hardware was developed EXPLICITLY to beat the Russkies to the Moon. Kennedy had no illusions about “exploration” or “colonization”. Apollo/Saturn met it’s goal, and it was time to shut it off. Shuttle? The purpose of shuttle was to build ISS. It did that. ISS is now complete. Shuttle was hugely expansive and not particularly safe. We’re still operating ISS because it was built to meet goals that have not yet been met with it.

    Unfortunately, you’re still wallowing in the idea that fiscal irresponsibility is forgiveable if that irresponsibility makes for small costs compared with bigger, completely unrelated efforts, that might well be fiscally irresponsible in their own right. That’s not the way to play the game.


    • LastTechAge says:

      5 points here. This gonna take time …
      1. Punish Management? One has be be pretty naive to think closing the program hurts the manager. Probably one needs experience sitting first on one side of the table then later on the other side. If you destroy the program, the Manager wins. Stupid externals caused the program to crash, his (or her) own work was superb. Works when getting that follow on job. You want to hurt the manager? Get him publicly fired. This is not about management, it is about far-rightist hatred of NASA “pinheads.”

      2. Although one can argue about comparison strategies, I don’t with people who hide behind internet anonymity. If really believe we should cut NASA budget, publish a letter somewhere with your full name attached. I will say that squeezing the overall budget is a way to kill your beast. Forcing valid programs to compete for less than adequate funds is the way to fund things that wont work right. Mandated items should be compared to all Mandated items. Each discretionary item should be compared to the pool of all recessionary programs.

      3. War value not obvious? I think you are mixing up cases. Our experience of invasion with intent to conquer has not paid off for us. Our experience with defense-against-threat has paid us back. I think I said “follow the money.” So: did the family who lost 2 sons in Iraq befit in any way, or did the top of Halliburton who had non-compete agreements with the government?

      4. Silly, Balderdash? Eh? One needs to explain why it was time to close Apollo/Saturn in 1973. There were still a number of Saturn launchers around + Apollo capsules. We spent $100B on this. A/S engineers had started a program to develop the Saturn IV, they had plans for a permanent manned Space Station. They had plans for a Lunar base. They were a mature program with huge momentum. Silly? That is the portrayal of JFK as one who would invest in $100B infrastructure then turn it off just as the real payback was looming. Balderdash? sheesh How can anyone seriously say the shuttle was started to build the ISS? Nixon started the Shuttle/Booster ball rolling in ’72 because was sold on the idea of a “real spaceship” that could take off from a runway, get to Space, then land on a runway. This was a system that would cost < $1,000/lb to LEO and launch nearly every week of the year (shuttle drivers need a vacation, too!). Nixon put in motion the death of our very real station, Skylab. He was a bit busy about then with minor details like Watergate, though. Read the top of the paragraph again about A/S capabilities to build a real station. If A/S was obsolete and needed closing, why did the recently dead Orion/Ares program look like an improved Apollo on top of a Saturn?

      5. Wallow, is that you or me? I follow Krugman's argument that as things tighten up we must do temporary spending to boost manufacturing jobs. The economy is like a submarine, it either goes up, or it goes down. Our recent presidents and our Tea Party guys want to see it go down. Clinton, Bush and Obama all seem to have thought — OK, the CEOs sold manufacturing capability abroad for really great profits, so we will take the day workers, the guys on the street, and turn them into "nanotechnology" design engineers. You already used up the adjectives to describe these concepts, I won't go there any further. We need to build so that we can regain our state as a world dominating power.

      Be careful that you do not "wallow" in the extremist rhetoric being thrown about as conservative Republicanism.

      Here is my personal bias, my confession, aired out loud for the first time. { i was a conservative Republican when I started college. I believed that people should be allowed to follow their own destiny so long as it did not actually hurt others. This was quite different from what I understood was on the other side, legally enforce conformity in all things. This core of self integrity and self direction was what I thought Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative" was about. Boy was I wrong. Republican leaders changed. Goldwater, himself, justified extremist movements.The new Republicans welcomed theologues who want/wanted to regiment common folks, propel ignorant preachers to positions of political power and install Religious icons and preachings in the halls of government. These guys complained when the Supreme Court made it illegal for the State to write prayers and require them in the classroom! (people today believe that prayer is illegal in schools.) Meanwhile the Republican party pursued raciest Dixicrats and excommunicated rational Republican leaders who did not support these agendas. I was repelled and pushed the eject button. But I still respect personal free will by everyone, so long as it does not damage another. } This almost catches the idea, but "no statement can be complete, including this one."


  3. Doug says:


    I don’t believe I ever said that cancelling the project would punish management. In fact, what I said was that using the funds to start a new project would just shift that management onto the new project. But indeed, I think that’s how Congress sees canceling JWST. Yes, I think that firing publicly is a great idea. Perhaps now that NASA is allowed some RIF flexibility, that could happen.

    About war, I’m just saying that our country has invested a HUGE number of dollars and lives in it. It continues to do so. Those in power must see value in it. That fact that you and I don’t doesn’t count for much.

    Re Apollo/Saturn V, who exactly had grand plans for a lunar base? No, it wasn’t the Administration. It certainly wasn’t JFK. That NASA talked itself into those grand plans, and was allowed to do so by the Administration is pretty sad, really. No, the purpose of the Moon landings was completely clear, and that purpose was actually well served with Apollo 11. Took a few more just to prove confidence in our abilities. Yes, the Shuttle was planned with all kinds of operations modes. It was also planned to have a dramatically low cost, which turned out to be dramatically wrong. Once that was realized, those plans evaporated. In the final two decades, the sole purpose of Shuttle was to build what is now called ISS. Even now, to build a large facility in LEO we probably wouldn’t use a shuttle. The idea of a human piloted space truck, with wings no less, is (in view of Progress, ATV, and HTV) rather unnecessary anymore. Shuttle is indeed kind of handy for downmass, but there are cheaper ways to assure that capability.

    By the way, the recently dead Orion/Ares program looks a lot like the current Dragon/Falcon program. The dead Orion looks a lot like the new crew vehicles, at least one of which is just that dead Orion renamed. It even looks a lot like Soyuz. Why? Because the surviving ones seem to be, or really promise to be relatively inexpensive ways to put people into space, and the capsule concept technology is proven. Apollo itself was grossly obsolete. The shape of it happened not to be. Saturn was obsolete mainly because we simply couldn’t afford to use it, and had few needs for a heavy lift vehicle like it. Many believe we still don’t. Yes, Saturn looks like modern rockets because, hey, modern rockets are skinny things with points on top, just like Saturn. Just because we still use skinny things with points on top to send things into space in no way justifies Saturn.

    Your libertarian confession has nothing to do with this discussion.

    Publish with my full name attached? Yep, I do that a lot. But there are forum hosts (certain watchers of NASA, in particular, used to do this) who get into a dither when people publish anonymously. Their idea is that who you are is more important than what you say. I’m not going to fall for that, and neither should you. Nothing I’ve said depends upon who I am. Your own brief bio really tells me nothing about your expertise and insight, but I won’t fault you for that.


  4. LastTechAge says:

    An opinion is not serious unless the person stating it is willing to admit it. “Doug” says that he doesn’t get the NASA dithery belief “that who you are is more important than what you say.” This is exactly backward to what is true. Anonymous flaming is a serious back-slide in our culture, one that is support by all the talk radio shows I have heard. With no name, you can propose murder, advocate our country’s destruction, … anything at all. You never have to live with the title of murderer, terrorist, or seditionist. In local communities, people handled their anti-social members with shunning or outright ex-communication. Our extended high level culture advocates its own destruction by allowing the potential for slanderous riot incitement.

    “Doug” has good points, ones that are worth exploring. But, does he(?) really believe what is advocated? Chris Baird stands behind his statements. From my view, Chris Baird’s comments all make sense, but even if I disagreed, he stands behind what he says with his personal reputation and would give them validity.

    “Doug” comments on this still make sense, so I did not erase them. I did let them get into the thread, after all.


  5. Doug says:

    Thanks. I think we’re done here. But it’s been illuminating.


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