Save the James Webb Space Telescope!

One unfortunate side effect of not posting very much is that I inevitably fall behind on current events in the blogosphere. Fortunately, I don’t really care that much about whether I see a piece of news before everyone else — if it’s important, people will talk and I’ll eventually hear about it. I’m more interested here in writing about things that are important (to me, anyway) than things that are new; there’s nothing new under the sun, really.

And at this rate, there may be nothing new at L2, either.

In the ongoing fracas over the US federal budget, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been specifically slated for cancellation. As a “cost-saving measure”, rather than having the funding for JWST released and allocated to other programs, it will be simply removed from astrophysics entirely. The consequences of this are set out with more eloquence and detail than I’d be likely to muster by Sean Carroll’s, Risa Wechsler’s and Julianne Dalcanton’s posts over at Cosmic Variance, so I encourage you to go read them if you want to know more. In particular, the timeline plot Julianne shows — which demonstrates how there probably won’t be any NASA space telescopes after 2014 unless JWST flies — is sobering, and the information from Risa about how to contact your elected representatives if you want JWST to fly will be useful.

They cover most of it there. One item that’s not covered there is that if JWST doesn’t fly, the Space Telescope Science Institute, NASA’s science center for space telescope operations and the folks who run the Hubble Space Telescope, will almost certainly close within two years of Hubble’s death. At the moment they employ about a thousand highly qualified astronomers, many of whom will eat each other’s young in a frantic scramble for already scarce jobs, and most of whom will probably end up leaving the field. Not only will their contributions and talents leave the field, they may no longer be available if something like JWST flies in the more distant future. Whole fields can lose their expertise when funding is cut after missions are cancelled or blow up on the launchpad.

Peter Coles wrote a post about a year ago when the US Astro2010 Decadal Survey came out, which mentions the loss-of-expertise problem in X-ray astronomy and other problems when you face such limited resources as we often do in science. I have to agree with him that funding technology development at the expense of basic scientific research is a shortsighted strategy which will make it hard to do big missions like this — I think a bad move on the part of funding agencies, but from constraints which devolve on them from the government which provides the funding. Yep, I’m looking at you, US Congress. Just think, we could have a space telescope and so much more if we were willing to turn off the AC in Afghanistan

For those who think it might help — we have to raise public awareness in order to put pressure, shame and the threat of loss at the polls on those who might be in a position to make a difference — there’s a Facebook group for a grass roots Save JWST campaign, who have made a flyer you can put up around your community. You know you want to.

Finally, watch the video, “Top 5 Awesome Things About The Webb Telescope”. The case is, I think, made most eloquently and succinctly there, though here’s an excerpt from the transcript with some context:

I personally think that there are two ways to make a better place: you can decrease the suck, and you can increase the awesome. Now, these are not mutually exclusive things — that’s hard to say, ‘mutually exclusive’. But they’re also not the same thing. And it’s clear that decreasing suck is extremely important, probably, in the end, more important than increasing awesome. And thus when I talk about the space program, people say, NASA’S MONEY COULD BE BETTER SPENT ON SERVICES FOR HUMANITY… And to them I say, I do not want to live in a world where we only focus on suck, and never think about awesome. If we lived in that world, then people would play soccer by having both teams stand and guard their own goal the whole game…
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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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