Funding For James Webb Space Telescope In Jeopardy

A bill approved by the House Committee on Appropriations cuts funding for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope in 2012. (The bill has not yet been approved by the full House and Senate). Ira Flatow and guests discuss the status of the 'scope and what happens if funding is cut.

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IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, the continuing battle to fund the James Webb Space Telescope or the battle to kill it, whichever way that you want to look at it.

This week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill to kill funding for the James Webb Space Telescope in 2012. The telescope, which is the Hubble Telescope's replacement, is over-budget and behind schedule. In cutting the funding, the House committee said it was, in effect, punishing NASA and making an example out of it by saying, quote, "significant cost overruns are commonplace at NASA, and the committee believes that the underlying cause will never be fully addressed if the Congress does not establish clear consequences for failing to meet budget and schedule expectations," un-quote.

The full House and Senate would still need to vote on this bill. So there's a chance the Webb could be saved. But should it? Billions have been spent already. Would we be sending good money after bad, or would it be wrong to pull out now, after all this money has been spent? I mean, after all, it was the Hubble Space Telescope which sent back those terrific pictures, which was also over-budget by the time it was done.

What do you think? Tell us on Facebook. You can tweet us your thoughts @scifri. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Joining me to talk more about the Webb, the problems that have plagued it and what might happen are my guests: Michael S. Turner, director and distinguished professor at Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Michael.

MICHAEL S. TURNER: I'm glad to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Ron Cowen is a former reporter for Science News. He's now a freelancer and writer for the Washington Post, Science and Nature. He joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome back, Ron.

RON COWEN: Thanks, Ira, hi.

FLATOW: Michael, tell us what is so important and revolutionary about this telescope.

TURNER: Well, I think the Webb is the successor, as you said, to the Hubble Space Telescope. And in every dimension, it's a quantum leap: seven times the collecting area. It will be a million miles from Earth at L2, which is a much better observing site.

It will go in the infrared. And the importance of the infrared is the most interesting things in the universe have their light in the infrared, so distant objects where it's red-shifted, cool things that are forming like planetary systems, and also things that are shrouded by dust, you can see through the dust in the infrared.

And so the science goals of the James Webb Space Telescope are to look at the first stars and galaxies, to watch galaxies being assembled from their individual parts, stars and dark matter and so on and so forth, image planets and perhaps find evidence for water on the planets and watch the birth of stars and planetary systems.

I think in one short statement, you know, Hubble revolutionized astronomy, and I think the Webb telescope has just as much or even more potential.

FLATOW: Ron, wasn't the Hubble over budget, too?

COWEN: Yes, it was, by - it was I think maybe triple what its original budget was, something like that. And, I mean, you know, it just seems to me this is what - actually, I was speaking to Alan Boss this morning, who is the - he's chair of a subcommittee that advises NASA.

And what he's saying is that, you know, okay, if you want to punish NASA, well, this is not like a trip to the woodshed, this is like a trip to the guillotine and that, you know to kill the whole mission doesn't, I think, make sense.

There have been a lot of cost overruns, and, you see there's a lot of pressures. In the article I wrote in April for Science News, even when this mission was first proposed something like 15 years ago, people were afraid to say how much it would really cost.

And Mike Griffin, who is a former administrator of NASA, said, you know, it's a game of you lie, and I'll swear to it. But Congress is, in a way, part of this game because if the mission perhaps - if the actual budget was stated in the first place for how much it would really cost, they may - people fear at least that they would say no, forget about it, we'll never do something for $5 billion or $6.5 billion.

TURNER: Maybe I could put that in perspective a little. So this is a very, very ambitious project. And about a year ago, Senator Mikulski was worried about how the project was proceeding. And I think what started the sequence of events that led to what the House did last week was this report that came out, led by Casani, the Casani reporter, the independent cost review panel.

And basically what they said was this project is going to cost at least $1.5 billion more than one thought. So that would put it closer to $7 billion. That it has been mismanaged, but money has not been wasted.

So the real issue is what Ron was saying, is that the mismanagement was headquarters and Goddard kind of playing footsy and not being honest with the real cost or the schedule. And, you know, to again put it in perspective, right now it's about 75 percent done.

An analogy I heard the other day, it's as if you're putting together an airplane or a car, and you've ordered parts from around the world, and you get a report that all the parts are made, and all that we have left to do is to assemble it. So we've got most of the pieces together, and now is the time to assemble it.

More than half of the money has been spent. There are no technical hurdles. I should have said that. The Casani panel said there are no technical hurdles. This is very, very ambitious, but they have surmounted the technical hurdles. They just need more money to get this done.

Now, given the current situation with our budget - and this is something I'm not qualified to comment on because I'm a scientist and very excited about this, this country has real budgetary problems. And the question is: Who are we really punishing if we cancel this project, where we spent close to $4 billion, and there's only, you know, $3 billion left to spend? Who are we punishing? Is that teaching NASA a lesson, or are we being pennywise and pound foolish?

COWEN: I think the problem also is that each year that this mission is delayed - and this is also what the Casani report said - it's going to cost more money and more money and more money. And the fear is that it will cost so much if you don't give it the funding it needs now that if it didn't - if it wouldn't get launched in 2022 or something, it wouldn't get launched at all because it would be that much more costly.

And that was the problem all along because it was originally set for launch in 2010 or 2011, and each year that it didn't get the money it needed, it cost more and more money. You have to keep personnel together and everything, and it just cost more.

FLATOW: But is there not something to the point that if there were - if everybody was playing this game of what it really cost, and there was, I'll use the word deception early on because we were winking and nodding to each other about what the real cost of it should be, isn't there some justification in saying, you know, you guys should have been up front with us, and we could have made a decision then on this?

TURNER: Well, let me comment on that. I think most - what NASA really does is rocket science, and it's not building widgets. It's really pushing the edge of what is possible. And for the most part, NASA projects are on schedule and on budget. And every once in a while - and we're talking about two of the examples today, the Hubble and the James Webb - NASA does a project where you're really literally reaching for the stars, and you are taking a giant leap forward.

And, you know, again, Hubble I think was over by more than what Ron said, and it just changed, fundamentally changed astronomy, added to American pride, and it convulsed NASA.

And so I think the big dilemma is, how do you deal with these big projects that are going to produce game-changers, where you really reach maybe a little beyond your grasp to try to do something really, really big? And how do you wall that off and prevent it from causing larger problems?

And I think the number one lesson from this report from a year ago is at the very least, you always have to be up front, that if you're hiding the true schedule and cost, that's not going to serve anyone well. And I think that's a very important lesson to learn.

I think people were shocked a year ago that the number, the additional amount of money was so large. And so I think that's a very, very important lesson. But I would not want NASA not to try to reach for the stars because NASA is us.

And when we do things like the Hubble, and when we do things like the James Webb, no other nation can do that, and great nations like ours do great things, and the Hubble and the Webb I think are examples of that.

FLATOW: Ron, have the problems been rectified, the management problems, since that report?

COWEN: Well, yeah, it seems so in the sense that the James Webb Space Telescope has been taken out of the Astrophysics Division, and it has its own - it's managed by one special group that reports directly to, I think, the administrator. So it seems so.

What I think concerns me, though, is that, you know, they're not - I am not hearing NASA saying how much extra now it will cost if it doesn't get launched in 2018 or 2020. I mean, I heard one report that maybe they know it, but that they're not going to say it or the administration doesn't want to say what it will cost till next February when the president proposes its next year budget. So I mean, I would want to - I think they need to be upfront now and say how much more it's going to cost. But, yes, I mean, I think they have - it seems like they have taken care of those mismanagement problems, I think so.

FLATOW: I think, Ron, I remember reading the cost is embargoed till 2013.

COWEN: Yes, that may be right.

FLATOW: Is this the death of it? If the funding is cut off for 2012, there's still money left over for some of it, but that would take a year away. And where would all those people stay on staff or go? What will happen?

TURNER: Yeah. I think realistically if you zero it out in '12...

COWEN: Yes, yes.

TURNER: ...you're right. You have this marching army ready to finish it, and it's going to disassemble. So I think I was sitting in on this meeting that Ron was talking about yesterday, this advisory committee, and Rick Howard at NASA headquarters was the person who reorganized the headquarters oversight. And I think from the perspective of the astronomy community listening to Rick, he's done a terrific job of reorganizing it, instituting transparency. And that being said, NASA is now between a rock and a hard place in the following sense.

So they've done a replan, as they call it. They've gone all the way up the management chain at headquarters to make sure everybody is on board, and they're now talking with the president's Office of Management and Budget to try to work out something. And right now would not be the time to go public and say, you know, here is our plan while you're still trying to work with the president and ultimately the Congress to fit it in because if you go forward now, you know, people are going to grab onto the most optimistic plan or the most pessimistic plan.

And some of this work does need to be behind closed doors, but you do identify the problem, that if there's no funding in 2012 that will all but kill the project. And so I think that's the big issue. And the House has spoken. The Senate has yet to speak. And I think the people have yet to speak. I noticed that there's now a website that has been put up by some graduate students asking for people to sign a petition to go to Congress to make sure that the James Webb goes forward. So this issue is going to start heating up.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Let's go to the phones, to Casey(ph). Before I get to Casey, let me read a tweet that says maybe we could sell the completed parts to the Chinese and let them finish it.

TURNER: Oh, I think that's exactly what we don't need to do. I mean, this country is a great country and...

FLATOW: Maybe we're finished. Maybe we're just finished in space. Yeah?

TURNER: I don't think we are. I think what happened...

FLATOW: We don't have the vision, and we don't care. We're talking just a few billion bucks here to finish it.

TURNER: Yeah. I think we've done such a good job after World War II of helping the rest of the world to build capability that all of a sudden we've got Europe and Asia that are almost our equals, and so we're a little bit spooked. But we're still the only nation that can mount such a telescope like the James Webb or the Hubble. And we need to go forward and do it. For us to step back right now and say, oh boy, you know, we'll just let the Chinese do it, I think, that would be such a blow not only to science but to national pride.

FLATOW: Casey in Grand Rapids, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CASEY: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: Hi there.

CASEY: I'd like to see the project and the Webb completed, but I'm curious. Is it possible for NASA to get private funding or sponsors to help pay for the mismanagement, instead of having the taxpayer (unintelligible)?

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

TURNER: Well, that's an interest question. Astronomy, unlike most other sciences, there is a history of philanthropy, and I guess we've already given away the name. Maybe we could add a sponsor's name to it. It's not a solution I've seen, but certainly in astronomy, we named - there's the Keck telescope and other telescopes named after their donors. That would be a creative way to solve the problem.

FLATOW: There are people who say that this telescope was taking up too much of NASA's budget, other science suffering because this is so expensive. How do you answer that, Michael or Ron?

COWEN: I mean, I think that's - I mean, it is taken off - has taken off 40 percent of NASA's astrophysics budget, and there are other missions that seem to be in jeopardy like one that is proposed to look for dark energy, this mysterious stuff that is making the universe expand faster and faster and has been called the biggest puzzle in physics in the - over the past century. But I mean, it is also true if you kill this mission now, the James Webb, there won't be a future flagship mission that NASA will have.

I think there is so much potential, personally, to make new discoveries, the fact that 75 percent of it has been completed. What I think has to be done is to make sure that the next game-changing telescope after this, that there are things in place that this mistake won't happen a third time. And it's not clear, to me, with all the pressures from Congress. I don't know if they're making it any easier. They're - punishing is not actually going to solve the overarching problem here, in my opinion. Punishing...

TURNER: Yeah. I think you raised an important point, Ira, which is that when the Webb bleeds, the rest of the astrophysics program hemorrhages. And that is a serious problem because if this is completed it will put great stress on the rest of the budget. And just to illustrate this, I probably will never use the James Webb Space Telescope, but I'm Mr. Dark Energy and the project that Ron was talking about, I think, could very well get postponed or squeezed out by the James Webb Space Telescope, and so that is a problem.

And I think somehow - I think Ron put his finger on it, fencing it off, more transparency and honesty upfront, I think that probably was the biggest problem, not knowing how big a problem this was going to be because NASA is us and we want - we are a great nation, and we want to do these game changers.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to have to leave there and see what happens as it moves through the Senate. Michael Turner is director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago. Ron Cowen, former reporter for Science News and now a freelancer writing for The Washington Post Science and Nature. Thank you, gentlemen. I'm sure you will back and touch with you. Thanks for coming on today.

COWEN: Thanks, Ira.

TURNER: Thank you.

FLATOW: We're going to take a short break and talk about - from the highly technical to the very simple, light bulbs, the future of light bulbs, again, another topic in Congress. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

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