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ASTRONOMY POLICY

Should We Put Human Spaceflight on Hold a Year to Save Astronomy?

The biggest controversy in the world of astronomy today is the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the wildly popular Hubble Space Telescope.

The controversy is budgetary: Webb’s estimated cost has risen from $1.6 billion, a decade ago, to $8.7 billion today. Of this $500 million is due to the addition of a five-year operating budget. But the rest is a huge cost overrun. The most recent estimate of $8.7 billion represents a $2.2 billion increase over the previous estimate by an independent panel last year.

Lawmakers are left to wonder: Will the spiraling costs ever end?

Given enough funding the Webb could launch in 2018. Scientists believe they have solved the complex instrument’s technical issues, so this is primarily a money issue.

Rising costs have put the Webb on the Congressional budget chopping block, and truth be told not all astronomers are particularly concerned. There’s a rift in the community, with some astronomers not associated with the Webb project concerned that the telescope is suffocating limited allocations for other projects.

Nevertheless, losing Webb at this point, with $3.5 billion invested so far, would be a huge loss. Canceling the project would lead to “a 20-year setback in astrophysics,” said astrophysicist Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Congress says NASA has to find the extra funds for Webb out of its own budget.

Late last month U.S. Rep Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that funds NASA, asked White House Office of Management Budget Director Jacob Lew in a letter to identify what part of NASA should be cut next year to cover Webb’s increased costs.

Unless his committee receives offsets in costs, Wolf said, he would move forward with the understanding that the Webb isn’t a priority for NASA. And therefore kill it.

So where to find $2.2 billion? Space News has a suggestion:

Canceling the project would be devastating. The money wasted and jobs lost can be quantified; the dulling of space technology’s cutting edge can be predicted. But the loss to science would be incalculable: Like Hubble — NASA’s most productive science platform ever — JWST has the potential to dramatically change astronomers’ understanding of the universe and its ongoing evolution. It is fair to say that if JWST is built and performs as advertised, it will document phenomena and objects never before seen, perhaps not yet even theorized.

Yet as painful as it is to even think about canceling JWST, this option must at least be considered given the unprecedented pressures on NASA’s budget. Even if lawmakers ultimately opt to stay the course — and they should — they have to understand the implications of that decision for NASA’s other activities.

In that regard, the Space Launch System, which per the House and Senate spending bills is slated to receive nearly $2 billion next year, is an appropriate bill payer for JWST. Given that NASA has no established exploration destination requiring the heavy-lift rocket on the schedule mandated by Congress, stretching out its development to help fund an observatory of undeniable scientific merit — its substantial problems notwithstanding — is a fair trade.

There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, this underlines the importance of identifying a mission for the rocket you’re building. A mission gives the rocket purpose. Without a mission or a hard timeline, what’s the harm in putting off the rocket for a year?

Secondly, if Space News is advocating putting development of the Space Launch System on hold for a year, how attractive is that $2.2 billion going to be to Congressional budget cutters with less of an affinity for human spaceflight?

Bottom line: This spaceflight program is dreadfully vulnerable.

Eric Berger is the Houston Chronicle’s space, weather and science reporter. He covers everything from nanometers to parsecs. You can follow him on twitter at @chronsciguy. This article is reposted with permission from Eric Berger’s blog at Chron.com.

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