Honestly, I haven’t been keeping up with the day-to-day developments about the threat to cancel to JWST. I assumed that the cancellation by the House Appropriations Subcommittee in the FY12 budget proposal was an empty threat and that the higher-ups in the US Astronomical community would take care of it. However, based on conversations with people in the know, the situation is vastly more serious than that and we, the entire US Astronomical Community, need to take action. My understanding is that the next step for the appropriations bill will be the House floor where it (and probably lots of amendments) will face a full vote. Given the vehement climate against so-called “discretionary spending” present in Washington right now, I’ve heard odds as high as 50-50 that JWST gets cancelled.
There are clearly lessons to be learned from JWST, but now is probably not the time to be debating those lessons. We’ve spent lots of money already; the instruments and mirrors are done. Regardless of your opinion on what could have been better or differently, the consequences of the cancellation are too large for us to risk it actually happening. Now is the time for us to speak with one voice in unwavering support of this mission.
Excepts from a memo by Garth Illingworth:
If we lose JWST after more than $3.5B of investment in cutting-edge technology, as well as the repeated endorsement of the National Academy over two decades, we will face serious difficulty with justifying any future major space mission to Congress and OMB in any science area (planetary exploration in particular, because of the similar high mission costs). If we are to continue the remarkably productivity and iconic visibility of NASA’s Great Observatories – Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer – we must continue with JWST. If we to have credibility with our partners, Canada and ESA, whose combined ~$1B investment and commitment is very large relative to their science budgets, we must continue with JWST. Even in such tough fiscal times it would be money well spent. US leadership is at stake.
Typical myths regarding JWST that occur in conversation and print, with responses.
- Termination of JWST will allow other important NASA astronomy programs to move forward.
Wrong. The funding disappears entirely from NASA. Astronomy loses ~$400M/year, SMD loses ~$400M/year, NASA loses ~$400M/year. From Astrophysics through SMD to the whole Agency, flexibility is lost for doing the big projects that only NASA and the US (for now) can do.
- The NASA Astronomy portfolio should get away from flagship missions and focus on smaller missions that serve a broader segment of the community.
Wrong. This is inconsistent with the whole history of astronomy, and particularly the last 50 years of astronomical progress, that has shown, time and time again, that major telescopes with broad capabilities are the key to progress. Such telescopes can respond quickly to new scientific opportunities and move forward the frontiers of knowledge and discovery in a timely and cost- effective way. Missions like the Hubble Space Telescope serve thousand of users and serve the research activities of the broadest possible segment of the community – through guest observer programs, archival research, graduate student and post-doctoral programs, etc. Small missions provide complementary science but are not the heart and soul of progress. Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and Korean astronomers have all shown recently that they understand that the future is in major astronomical facilities. It is remarkable, and shortsighted, that some members of the most sophisticated and knowledgeable astronomy community on the planet might not grasp the opportunities offered by JWST.
- JWST is years away from launch with much that remains to be done, so terminating it now will save billions.
True. But for a further $0.5B per year (less than 3% of NASA’s total budget) over the next 7 years the US will get the most powerful Observatory ever conceived and will demonstrate again our scientific and competitive leadership day after day for 10 years once JWST is launched. And having spent $3.5B already of taxpayer funds that has led to 75% of the hardware being delivered or in fabrication, this seems like a wise and prudent additional investment, even in periods of fiscal challenges. Furthermore, the money that might be “saved” by termination would not be available to other science programs, and much of the $3.5B would also be wasted since the hardware is so special to JWST that it cannot be reused.
- The remaining risks in JWST are substantial and not well understood. It is better to terminate the program now.
Absolutely not true. The ICRP said that JWST had made “commendable and often excellent technical progress”. This excellent technical progress has continued in 2011 since the ICRP report. The mirror delivery, planning for testing and integration, focus on deliverables and meeting milestones are all hallmarks of a project that is on a path to success. Of course there will be future challenges and problems. This is a unique, one-off project at the cutting edge of technology. It has never been done before. Such projects push the envelope of human capabilities. They are never easy and will have challenges and problems, but with adequate guts, determination, and contingency, JWST can be done. And JWST can be done for substantially less money than has been spent on Hubble.
What You Should Do to Save JWST
First, there’s a letter to the White House science adviser, John Holdren, from the astronomical community in support of JWST that is available to sign. If you are currently working at a US institution, read the full letter and fill in your name and institution at the bottom. I believe the aim is to get this letter to Holdren sometime before Congress gets into their detailed budget deliberations, which could be as early as Friday, Sept 9th. Please sign as soon as possible. (This letter is meant for professional astronomers to sign, not the general public. Public support can be registered at Save The JWST and Change.org.)
Also, in a Informational Email, AAS President Debra Elmegreen has listed other things you should do to sustain a grass-roots effort of education and advocacy for JWST:
- Write a letter to your member of Congress about what JWST will do
for your local community including jobs and the impact on STEM
education and training.
- Write a letter to the President, with a copy to your Congressmen, in support of JWST.
- Encourage friends, neighbors, and colleagues to write to their member of Congress to support the JWST.
- Consider writing an Op-Ed piece for your local paper on the importance of supporting the JWST.
- Get the word out to support the JWST:
- get on a radio talk show or local news spot
- talk to school groups about JWST
- talk to community service groups such as the Kiwanis, Zonta, or
Lion’s Club about JWST and ask them to talk to and write their members
- Continue to be active in social media, such as Facebook and Twitter (@SaveJWST, #SaveJWST).
- Sign a petition, such as the one on change.org.
Here are a bunch of resources where you can learn more about all the details and find inspiration for the letter you should write:
- Detailed status update by JWST Program Director Rick Howard to the NASA Astrophysics Subcommittee from July 2011 – 38 page PDF of NASA-style bullet point slides with milestone targets. Includes the details of replan for FY13 budget and Oct 2018 launch date.
- Memo from Garth Illingworth – Key points from Howard’s Program Update and talking points for discussions with public, politicians, or media. The memo consists of three parts: (1) discusses the background and the consequences of terminating JWST; (2) summarizes the impacts of terminating JWST in 10 “talking points”; and (3) highlights 10 myths regarding JWST that occur in conversation and print.
- Latest news from STScI – Summary of several important aspects of JWST including the Observatory’s current status and expected research impact.
- Collected links from AURA – Includes links to statements by government officials, professional societies, editorials and op-eds, and NASA documents.
Why We Need the James Webb Space Telescope – Blog post by Julianne Dalcanton (July 7, 2011) explaning the issues to a public audience.