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Planetary scientists: Webb telescope not too big to fail

jwst.jpg The internecine warfare among NASA scientists over the fate of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has begun. The rising financial burden of the JWST — now projected to cost $8.7 billion to launch in 2018 and then operate for five years — has increasingly prompted the question: whose responsibility is it to bail out the telescope? Planetary scientists — among others — are now saying they want little part of the rescue operation, lest their own grand ideas be derailed.

NASA is already seeking approval for a ‘replan’ that would share projected cost overruns across the entire agency, so that the human spaceflight programme would bear half of the burden along with NASA’s science mission directorate. That placated astrophysicists, who say that there is no way their relatively small budget of $1 billion could ever deal with the overruns.

But there are three other science divisions at NASA in addition to astrophysics — Earth science, planetary science, and heliophysics — and some of them aren’t too happy with the state of affairs. On Thursday, a group of 14 eminent planetary scientists signed an editorial that noted how the JWST was threatening their careful plan for the future, including the start of a Mars sample return mission. “We individually and together reject the premise that JWST must be restored at all costs,” wrote the authors. Among the signatures are those from Steve Mackwell, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, and Alan Stern, the former director of NASA’s science mission directorate.

Also on Thursday, NASA Watch reported that David Alexander, a heliophysicist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, sent a letter to the American Astronomical Society (AAS) expressing similar concerns: that the JWST would derail plans and ambitions put forth by the soon-to-be-finished heliophysics decadal survey. Alexander is head of the solar physics division of the AAS.

The complaints could reflect worries that the NASA replan is not sitting well with the White House. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy have not approved the cost-sharing replan. Some sources have said that OMB has indicated that it wants to see the hard choices associated with a JWST borne by the science division alone.

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    Timothy Livengood said:

    I was bothered immediately by the phrase “… lest their own grand ideas be derailed,” which implies that skepticism about the global necessity of JWST is mere petty self-interest. It’s not the grand ideas that are particularly endangered — decisions at the level of billion-dollar price tags engender serious prioritization across all disciplines that NASA supports. What’s in danger of derailment is the broad span of work done at the level of individual investigator grants, if JWST should start to eat up the whole science budget. These programs have already been drastically curtailed in the last several years. The individual-investigator programs could be cleaned out completely and it would hardly make a dent in the price tag for JWST. JWST is a long-standing priority for astrophysics, and other sciences (astrobiology, planetary science) might even get a little taste of it. Nevertheless, as an astrophysics priority exclusively, JWST has not had to be prioritized against all the other science that NASA does, it has only had to be prioritized against NASA’s other astrophysics activities. If JWST is to be considered as a priority that hits the budget of all of NASA’s science programs, then it needs to be prioritized against all of NASA’s science programs.

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    Oliver said:

    Is the link from the word editorial headed to the right place?

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    Arx DeVentus said:

    This seems just one more brick in the legacy wall of the current US administration.

    It’s very difficult not to be cynical as you watch your nation’s space program die of purposeful neglect.

    The JWST is being slowly swept under the rug by bean counters and those who would dearly love some of its funding for their own pet projects.

    We can only hope that they aren’t successful.

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