The Telescope that Ate Space Science

Note that both Scolese and Weiler still have their jobs. Administrator Bolden, despite the fact that he is a Marine general, seems reluctant to properly manage or discipline underperformers, even though they were not his appointments (the putsch described above occurred under NASA Administrator Mike Griffin). Ideally, the White House would deal with his own underperformance, but the last thing they want to do right now, amidst all their other problems, is a job search and confirmation for a new administrator.

But the agency cannot afford this. As the June editorial pointed out, this is NASA’s Katrina. The Webb telescope is eating up the budget for other space science projects, in an extremely austere fiscal environment. Moreover, NASA’s inability to control costs doesn’t inspire confidence that it will be able to execute future programs, such as the Senate Launch System, properly. And as the Florida Today article pointed out, this is an extremely complex and risky project from a technological standpoint. It is quite possible that, over a decade and several billion dollars from now, the device will be launched, and be an utter failure.

It is time -- long past time -- to pull the plug on this project, and start over with a clean sheet of paper and new assumptions. If SpaceX really develops their Falcon Heavy launcher, the capability to launch over fifty tons of payload at a cost of a hundred million dollars will revolutionize the way we think about payload design. It would relieve designers of the necessity to remove every last pound from a spacecraft, and allow innovative but less risky means of satisfying mission requirements. Moreover, if NASA is allowed to move forward with the technology development it seeks, and not have the budget for it eaten up by an unaffordable government launch vehicle for which there are no mission requirements or payloads, it will be possible to assemble large telescopes in orbit, and then move them the million or so miles to the planned observing site.

We are on the verge of a revolution in the costs and capabilities of spaceflight, and it is going to cause us to rethink a lot of the ways we currently do things. Putting off the capabilities of the Webb for a few years won’t be the end of the world for astronomy -- the beginning of the universe isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and in any event, it looks as though such a delay is going to occur regardless, while wiping out a lot of other good science (some of which may have practical applications, such as prospecting asteroids for platinum group metals, or testing ways of moving one on a collision course for earth). In fact, it is quite likely that a new approach could give us the results of Webb, at lower cost, and sooner, but only if we abandon the current flawed one. But it would start with new management.

Let’s hope that the White House agrees.