Are we watching NASA Astrophysics commit suicide?

"The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering." -Ben Okri

Let me take you back 20 years, to the early 1990s. Back then, the world's most powerful particle accelerator was right here in the United States: Fermilab's Tevatron.

With energies of one Tera-electron-Volt (hence Tevatron) per beam, and a beam of protons colliding with anti-protons, it was the most powerful accelerator in the world by a large margin.

And even though plans for the Large Hadron Collider were in the works (with 7 TeV per beam), we had plans of our own.

Deep in the heart of Texas, we were building the mother of all particle accelerators: the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), with energies of 20 TeV per beam! It was going to position the US at the top of the accelerator physics world for decades to come, and have an energy reach of nearly six times what the LHC is currently running at.

In 1987, Congress was told the project could be completed for $4.4 billion, and the Texas site was selected the next year.

Major construction began in 1991, and over the next two years, more than 23 kilometers (over 14 miles) of tunnel were dug, with seventeen shafts leading down to it.

But already by this point, nearly 2 billion dollars had been spent, and the SSC was nowhere near completion. By time Congress cancelled the project in October of 1993, the cost estimates for completion had ballooned to somewhere around $12 billion, with the Department of Energy's Inspector General releasing a report very critical of the high costs and poor management of the project.

You know the rest of that story. Fermilab's Tevatron is shutting down for good over the next year, the LHC was completed (for about $5 billion) and is up and running, and particle physics in the US is now just a handful of smaller, low energy accelerators that are not competitive with the LHC, incapable of discovering new fundamental particles. In short, US particle physics sealed its doom with the SSC fiasco.

Come into the 2000s, now, in astrophysics. With the Hubble Space Telescope in full swing, we also had a large number of great projects going, including the Chandra X-Ray observatory, shown below looking at the Crab Nebula,

WMAP, taking pictures of the Universe from when it was only 380,000 years old,

as well as a whole host of other space-based telescopes, including SWIFT, WISE, Spitzer, Kepler, GALEX, and Fermi, among others.

Each of these probed different wavelengths of visible light, from microwaves all the way down to gamma rays, and everything in between. In fact, looking at an object like the Andromeda Galaxy in different wavelengths can teach us an amazing variety of things about it!

Image credit: Rob of Orbiting Frog.

And we had great plans, just a few years ago, of really pushing the envelope in a wide array of areas, opening new doors to understanding the Universe.

The International X-Ray Observatory would supersede Chandra and all other X-Ray observatories, giving us the best view of high-energy phenomena -- such as colliding galaxies, black holes, and antimatter jets -- in the Universe!

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna would be the first space-based gravitational wave detectors, capable of seeing things like merging black holes for the first time ever in our Universe!

W-FIRST, which will find thousands of distant supernovae and measure large-scale structure more accurately than ever before, would not only make the best-ever measurements of the mysterious dark energy, but would -- as a bonus -- image two billion galaxies and find extra-solar planets in our galactic bulge! (Technical info available here.)

And, of course, the pièce de résistance...

The James Webb Space Telescope! With a 6.5 meter segmented mirror, James Webb will have more than seven times the light-gathering power that Hubble currently enjoys.

With the ability to peer deeper and farther into the Universe than any telescope before, James Webb will not only set all sorts of records across a huge set of wavelengths, it should also -- for the first time ever -- be able to detect signatures from the very first stars ever formed in the Universe!

Here's a comparison of James Webb's sensitivities with some other space telescopes.

Note the y-axis, and that it's about a factor of 100 more sensitive than its nearest competitors.

There are all sorts of wonderful arguments for why we need James Webb (including my take), and all sorts of new discoveries just waiting for us. We've already advanced incredibly far, and realistically, at a minuscule monetary cost compared to what we spend on other things.

But that's no excuse for egregious financial mismanagement. IXO, LISA and W-FIRST are all on the back burners right now, despite W-FIRST being NASA's recent decadal survey's number 1 recommended project. Because James Webb -- at an estimated cost of $5.1 billion -- is the top priority right now. We've put all our eggs in this basket. Well, guess what?

A little less than a year ago, it was determined that the $5.1 billion figure was unrealistic, and that it would actually cost an extra 1.4 billion dollars beyond that to complete it. Quoting from Science News:

An independent investigative panel reported in November that the telescope, known by the acronym JWST, is running a minimum of $1.4 billion over budget. That overrun, which would bring the total cost of building the telescope to at least $6.5 billion, may lead to the cancellation of another highly touted NASA mission to probe the nature of dark energy and extrasolar planets.

The 2014 launch date was said to be unrealistic as well, and despite how much astrophysics needs this to keep learning and exploring the Universe, the US House Appropriations Committee deleted funding for James Webb entirely this year.

But I didn't lose hope; the government actually did what they were supposed to do in the face of this!

The US Senator -- Barbara Mikulski -- who represents Goddard Space Flight Center (above), where the Webb Telescope is being assembled, ordered an independent cost analysis. Here are the sickening results.

Managers at NASA replanning the James Webb Space Telescope program after an independent cost analysis found it over budget and behind schedule have concluded it will cost about $8.7 billion to finish the telescope in time for a launch in 2018.

How does a theoretical astrophysicist feel at hearing this news?

And this is the great tragedy of it all. We should fund it. We should be doing this science. We should be learning all these wonderful things about the Universe. We should be sending up the best equipment and developing the necessary technologies for it. (For what it's worth, they often later lead to great innovations in the marketplace, too!)

My great fear in all of this is that NASA Astrophysics will go the way particle physics did 20 years ago. How horrible for knowledge, curiosity and adventure if IXO, LISA and W-FIRST never happen because NASA managers can't count. That James Webb is now going to be delayed by four more years, and realistically the only way it will get built is if we steal money from other NASA projects to do it. Because astrophysics at NASA is already feeling the sting.

Image credit: Nature.

Learning more about the Universe is one of the things, literally, that I live for. Listen up, NASA's Astrophysics division. It's way past time to get your act together. Here's what you need to do from now on.

No more accepting proposals with unrealistic budgets. I don't care how tantalizing the project is; if it can't be done for what they say it can be done for, you can't fund it.

No more allowing large projects to balloon out-of-control to just accomplish a little more. Learn when to say when.

Don't scrap all of your small- and medium-sized missions in favor of large ones. Remember faster-better-cheaper? It was better than what we have now.

No putting all your eggs in one basket. I mean it. All of your current missions are ending, and what are you going to replace them with? Lest you think I exaggerate, let's take a look at your own mission timeline:

Everyone -- theorists, observers, technicians, contractors, instrument builders, professors, students, Starts With A Bang readers -- is counting on you. If you don't get it right, now, you're going to condemn us all to the same fate as experimental particle physics. And while Europe is great, we like it here. Give us a home, and we'll help you make it great.

Here's hoping that we all get one more chance.

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By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 23 Aug 2011 #permalink

The main problem with the USA from my overseas vantage point is that it appears to be heading towards (& perhaps has already arrived at) third world status, Latin American kleptocracy style, in almost every aspect.

It has a system of governance based on a decrepit constitution, crumbling infrastructure, dystopian cities, the worst health care system of any developed country and the fewest and least effective safety nets for those in urgent economic need.

In those circumstance, it could hardly be expected that the US government could afford to provide funding for worthy projects in science if politicians are obliged to direct so much of their attention and government funding towards those who provide them with the greatest amount of contributions for re-election campaigns.

Good (if depressing) article & summary of a very sad situation. :-(

Thanks I guess.

Have you seen what Dr Phil Plait - the Bad Astronomer - has been saying about it too for instance, here :…

I strongly agree with him when he says :

Congress should fully fund NASA instead of starving it of needed assets.

I wish I could be optimistic that that's what we're likely to see though.

PS. Hope it's okay to link other blogs here, apologies & please let me know if not. I'm going to post this aticle there too (commenting as Messier Tidy Upper there) for which same applies - hope that's alright.

FWIW, Iâm still an unashamed, ardent NASA fan.

NASA is the only group that has ever landed humans on our Moon. It has taken us further, shown us more and has a better record of achievement than any national or private space agency in history. NASA has done so much good for the United States of America and Humanity as a whole. It exemplifies Americaâs finest principles and people, it is humanityâs pride going in peace for all of us where none have gone before. It deserves, methinks, our full support and all the funds it needs to achieve the wonders and win us all the knowldde and joy that it can, has and does deliver.

NASA is also, appallingly in my view, chronically underfunded and I think under-appreciated both at home and abroad. I hope that situation improves. I hope we see the James Webb SpaceTelescope launched. I hope we start making progress in space and space technology and exploring further into our cosmic home again.

I wish I could say that I was optimistic that we will.

Problem is, the US government is basically broke. NASA *should* be funded, but so should many other things that are also having their budgets slashed. Pure research is important, but it's really hard to justify when funds are scarce.

For the record, the $8.7 billion figure includes the mission operation costs. The previous figure included only the construction/launch costs. Not sure how much the construction/launch costs have actually increased.

The US government is *not* broke. The trouble is, Washington is in the grip of a superstition called supply-side economics (I think fundamentalist Christianity is a bit player at most in this). While JWST may survive, the outlook for science, and civilisation in all its aspects, remains poor for America until this particular issue is fixed.

Astronomy is our oldest natural science. No one who has looked up at night has failed to be moved by a deep sense of wonder and curiosity. Arguably the study of the heavens, with its regime of careful measurement and observation, led to the study of all other natural phenomena. It is so appropriate that this most ancient of sciences has done so much to reveal our ancient origins. It is so sad that bureaucratic mismanagement is jeopardising the one science that does so much to give our species a sense of place and time.

But then, as a veteran of large projects (though much, much smaller than these) I know that properly forecasting the costs/timeline and controlling them is an extremely vexing problem that taxes the ability of very competent people. That doesn't stop me from crying at the potential loss of knowledge.

You say

"The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering." -Ben Okri

While I agree completely with this fine quotation, I should add that the other, authentic thing about us is our capacity to feel for the suffering of our fellows and to relieve their suffering. In this way, as Ben Okri says, we become greater than our suffering. We become authentic people.

The James Webb Space Telescope, if it's ever going to be build, is an international endeavor. 17 countries are involved and it's led by the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. The USA should do it's part in funding and should get the recognition for it. But it might be honest to mention that the hubble was never a solely American undertaking; ESA was and is involved to.

It just bugs me a little to make this into some sort of race of competion while, both in accelerator physics and astrophysics cooperation has been a reality for a long time. Americans use the collider in Europe: Europeans use the Hubble. It's something we should be proud of.

(that being said: NASA should get more funding. But not for some patriotic 'win the future fantasy'. It should get because science matters.

Awesome, I got turned onto space exploration just in time to see it die. I should have stuck with dinosaurs, at least they're already extinct.

You have fallen for one of the oldest cons, blaming the victim. Not that NASA is without fault and couldn't be better. But the politics of corruption, greed and ideological self interest are the bigger culprits.

Let's put the NASA little bitty cost overrun of a couple of billion dollars in perspective.

"September 2002, White House economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey estimated the cost of invading Iraq could amount to between $100 billion and $200 billion. Mitch Daniels, who at the time headed the White House budget office, called Lindseyâs estimates âvery, very highâ (MSNBC) and said the war would cost $50 billion to $60 billion."

" in October 2007, the CBO said in a new report that the United States had already spent $368 billion on its military operations in Iraq, $45 billion more in related services (veterans care, diplomatic services, training), and nearly $200 billion on top of that in Afghanistan. The CBO now estimates the costs of the Iraq war, projected out through 2017, might top $1 trillion, plus an extra $705 billion in interest payments, and says the total cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined could reach $2.4 trillion."

So really, the NASA cost overrun is microscopic, both in percentage and in absolute terms. And as Dave points out some of the new cost overrun is do to budget line item shifting i.e. plus operating costs.

What we are witnessing is a lack of political vision and will. NASA is just one victim of the politics of NOW, the politics of greed, the politics of fear mongering, the politics of hypocrisy, the politics of posturing and slogan slamming. In sum, Alan L is correct, parts of the US have become increasingly third world. And the politics of self interest (i.e. lack of vision) does not care.

No NASA Astrophysics is NOT committing suicide. NASA is being raped, extorted and abused.

The James Webb and these other projects will get funded. If not by the NASA in the US then by the European Space Agency perhaps with a little help of the Chinese. The Chinise are looking for ways to spend their vast plunder of US dollars, in ways that will enhance them technologically and ideologically.

Astrophysicists, may I suggest that you start learning to speak Mandarin. Life is an adventure; this moment of madness will pass. At some point the blind men in the cave of human "civil"-ization will come to the "real"-ization that the one eyed astronomers (though not kings) have much more to be listened to than the politicians panderers parasites of abusive power.

The problem is that tho lobbyists who fund the congressmen who fund NASA, the administrators who run NASA and the contractors that work for NASA don't see NASA as a source of science, they see NASA as a source of jobs and profit.

Gaming the system is what makes the most profit, so that is what successful contractors do. Put in a low bid that doesn't do the job but gets accepted and then has to be changed.

A lot of what needs to be done has never been done before, has never been designed, has never been engineered, has never been built, so it isn't known how much it will cost to do. You don't know how to do it, so you estimate. Who gets the bid? The high bid or the low bid?

What happened to Lindsey? He was fired for bring bad news that was still wildly optimistic.

Government costing is a gigantic, byzantine mess. Science seems to be following the military example, in which you low-ball everything to get the contract, and afterwards of course the costs balloon. I think costing over a 20-year timescale is also sufficiently complicated in general that an error bar of a factor of two is not unreasonable in a lot of circumstances.

But what congress and the US doesn't seem to realize is that science doesn't become unimportant just because it becomes more expensive. The US needs a mechanism to select what science is most important, and fund it, regardless of the cost. Science is not just another bureaucratic mouth to feed, and minimizing costs of science is generally a bad idea. In the US every science project, every year, risks cancellation. Even for an on-time, on-budget big science project, this is an unnecessary and unreasonable risk. All it takes is one economic downturn or shortsighted congress to lose wide swaths of important science. We need to set up political and financial structures to accomplish science. The basic problem here is that one congress cannot oblige next year's congress to maintain levels of funding for anything. Each congress is independent. (Other governments e.g. in Europe can budget over longer time spans) Another problem is the pork and earmark nature of the budget. NASA and military contractors try to put a contractor in every state, to get every senator and congressman to vote for them. This was a big reason for the SSC's cancellation. By and large the only state benefiting was Texas. (A big financial competitor to the SSC was the ISS -- with NASA centers in every state -- and which also went massively over budget, I might add)

CERN gets around these budgetary woes because it is an independent organization that takes its funding as a fraction of the GDP of its member countries. So its funding levels are basically constant. When something runs over budget, it can still do it, but it may take longer.

For the US, we need a new funding structure. A CERN-like funding structure, with US states contributing to a national lab or pool of labs may work. Another idea would be to establish "trust funds" for big projects so that the project is paid out of one year's budget, even if the project itself takes longer than that to complete. This would incentivize more accurate cost accounting, and ensure budget stability for the project.

So write your congressman and save the JWST people. Maybe suggest the "trust fund" idea while you're at it.

Follow the money. None of it is spent in the space. It all stays on the ground. It just moves to different pockets. Unfortunately NASA uses the same technology and the same contractors as Pentagon, and they see NASA as a pork barrel. And they have experienced lobbyists.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

What?? You're not happy with NASA and it's new direction? You must hate Muslims. Grow up, kick the socialists out of the profession or be relegated to the trash heap of history. Do you want science or flawed (alien) global warming studies and diversity? The party of predetermined scientific outcomes has no use for actual research, and it shows. Consensus is not science, the credibility of "scientists" (a catch-all term) has been damaged by backing an anti-capitalist technocracy to fix "global warming", reap the reward.

By Socialist scientists (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

The SSC was treated as a pork project with requirements that contracts go to US vendors. You can imagine how happy other countries were with that. We armtwisted the Japanese to contribute, but that announcement was dropped, perhaps because Bush ate the wrong food at the banquet.
What did it in completely was a change in accounting requirements. The Feds, tired of persistent cost overruns, required more accurate cost assessments. The second project evaluated using the new procedures was the SSC, and the $4B tag was re-evaluated to over $10B, causing serious sticker shock.
The sticker shock persisted to other projects, and I don't know if the Feds still require the same accounting--too embarrassing.

@17 Socialist scientists | August 24, 2011 10:26 AM :

Do you want science or flawed (alien) global warming studies and diversity?

Alien global warming studies?

Are you referring to the work of Carl Sagan and others about what happened to Venus and the poor ole Cythereans? Or is this a new frontier of cutting edge research into exoplanetary climates I've yet to hear about?
Sounds interesting!

I'd want that. A bit of diversity doesn't hurt either.

As for the "flawed" part, of course the advantage of the scientific method (things like peer reviews, new studies, continuing research etc ..) is that flaws can be - and generally are quickly detected and corrected.

Example : Find a flaw that's truly significent in the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming, get it published in a peer-reviewed legitimate paper and you'll (or whoever'll) be a contender for the next Nobel prize.

[Sorry, getting off-topic here which is astrophysics not climatology but anyhow.]

Very well stated, Ethan. I am a senior astronomer, and whose research would be strongly enhanced (revolutionized, in fact), by JWST. While the scientific potential of JWST is indeed enormous, the fiscal black hole it's creating that we're being swept into is awesome. What I find slightly obscene are the naive and reflexive pleas from many in our community to continue funding this fiscal travesty at all costs. This is where the science community uses science potential as an excuse for fiscal irresponsibility. The American Astronomical Society lectures Congress on how great JWST science is "Don'tcha see, you dumb legislators???"), but this professional society just doesn't get it. Congress clearly understands the science potential of JWST. What they don't understand is why that potential should excuse a massive fiscal screwup, and one that seems to regularly repeat itself. The message the AAS should be running with is some assurance that we finally have our cost management system for JWST back in order. Trouble is, I don't think we do.

The AAS (and much of the astronomy community) also wails about the loss of science if JWST were to be terminated. That's simplistic. What would be lost is JWST science. But if that money could be used for other things, one might replace that lost science with fabulous SIM, LISA or WFIRST science. Perhaps before 2018.

The idea that JWST will suck up R&D energy in NASA astrophysics for almost a decade is truly frightening, even if most of the extra money needed comes from somewhere else. I'm not a theoretician, but an instrumentalist, and the idea that my colleagues won't get significant support for almost a decade to develop new, creative space astronomy instrumentation is, as you say, like watching a discipline commit suicide. Who's going to be around to do design missions after JWST?

The idea of stealing money from other NASA pursuits is also distressing. It's been pointed out before that several years ago, when Mike Griffin tried to take money from science to support Constellation, there was a rightful stink and manic opposition from the science community. Firewalls were set up to prevent that from ever happening again. Now the astronomy community is glibly asking to do it in reverse. Let's relax those firewalls, just this time, please! Let it be understood that if JWST is funded in this way, other disciplines will remember, and there will be "payback time". The lack of new missions (and the consequent lack of science and exercise of technical abilities) and the piracy burden that we will henceforth bear should be a matter of grave concern especially to the younger members of the community, who we'll bequeath this situation to.

So what am I going to tell my earth, heliophysics, and planetary science colleagues? "Oh, just wait until you see the glorious pictures of the early universe from this thing!" Which you might get to see a decade from now, with any luck ...

If we terminate JWST, won't there be huge sunk costs? Sure. NASA has sunk a lot larger costs than that in its history.

One of the most upsetting parts of this situation is that our recent Decadal Survey was explicitly NOT chartered to consider the impact of continued gross cost and schedule overruns on JWST. We could have had careful community judgement about this situation in hand, but chose not to allow it. That Decadal committee ought to be slapping themselves across the face on this one.

What's the lesson here? Probably that NASA astrophysics bit off more than it could chew. It wrapped its arms around a mission that it could barely afford, and when the costs started to escalate, affordability went out the window. Whether JWST is continued or not, I fear that NASA astrophysics has lost any credibility about flagship missions. The question we have to wrestle with is whether killing JWST now would help restore that credibility, and whether that credibility is more important than the science from one flagship mission.

Yes, I'm writing this anonymously, because it isn't exactly career-advancing to throw sand in the face of our professional society. But you should know, as should the public, that there are a lot of us who think this way.

By Dennis Lasswell (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

Socialist scientists: wow. You're all over the place. This article is not about global warming, nor diversity. I assume by "predetermined scientific outcomes" you mean that you don't like the nature of reality in some field. Let's see if I can dig a couple of actual issues from this stream of consciousness.

"Consensus is not science" Well... is there is a reality, which can be understood at least partially, with a fair degree of reliability? If not, I don't understand what you mean by "science". If you do agree that there is, then would not scientists in a field come to a general consensus as we learn enough about it? When a field is sufficiently mature, there will still be many, many, questions, but surely the fundamentals will be accepted. Nobody in particle physics, for example, doubts the existence of atoms, nor subatomic particles. Nobody in astrophysics doubts the science taught in astronomy 101 classes. Are there any working biologists who doubt mainstream evolutionary science? Perhaps a handful, but those would likely be for religious reasons, not scientific. So what's your problem with consensus? It is enforced by the wealth of knowledge in a field, not political fiat.

Socialism... should government fund science? Anyone in science will tell you that most science will simply not get done if it depended on private business for support. Business decisions supporting R&D depend on managers who hope to see an improved bottom line in the very short term. If the USA, say, went to a private-funded science culture only, we would very quickly be eclipsed by Sweden, Germany, China, Singapore, and Japan, whose companies would *profit from the general science knowledge and experience of their respective countries. If you want Boeing to make money, then we should be funding NASA with my tax dollars and yours (assuming you're a Yankee).

Dennis: to be fair, this issue is not confined to scientific funding only. The US has a process which, as Ethan points out, rewards those companies who seriously underbid. There are ways to avoid this,(1) but the decision makers who put out the short bids fund the lobbyists who pay the legislators who shape and maintain the process...

But you're right; if the astrophysics (et al) communities can clean it up from the inside, then much of this can be avoided.

(1) From the government side: cover ongoing costs but not profit until it is finished (or in a few stages). Stop the payments ASAP if cost overruns become serious. Three year ban on said company making new bids on new projects. Make sure the CEOs or whoever get no bonus from seeing the deal go through before it is finished and paid for.

"Consensus is not science"

Except if you can't get almost everyone to agree on reality, then you can't do any testing and you have no science.

The effect of gravity is understood by consensus as ACTUALLY HAPPENING. Testing the theory of gravity requires that people agree that the test shows the result proclaimed.

When Cold Fusion couldn't be seen by most people, the CONSENSUS was that there was NO cold fusion.

So consensus IS science. Without consensus, all you have are unreliable and unconfirmed (confirming it is a consensus with the observations) anecdotes.

"backing an anti-capitalist technocracy"

So Exxon et al produce their petroleum products by alchemy and eschew all technology???

Got anything to support your conspiracy theory? NOTE: the lack of consensus on your conspiracy is evidence that you're likely to be wrong. If the majority agreed with you, this would be evidence that you are right. I guess that this is why your ravings aren't supported by others: if they did, that would mean you'd have to believe them wrong...

I mean sure, 4/5 of the world doesn't have clean water to drink, but we absolutely should spend more money on space telescopes and particle accelerators.

By instigator (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

"Dennis: to be fair, this issue is not confined to scientific funding only."

Kermit, you're exactly right. I never meant to imply that this was a science-only issue. Good heavens, the kinds of cost overruns we commonly see in other parts of NASA (e.g. Constellation) or DoD make this look miniscule.

But the issue here is that astrophysics has bitten down on a project that, at best, was marginally affordable. Hey, the huge cost overruns in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program were going to hurt, but they weren't going to shut down our military. Those were large cost overruns in a program that was not "marginally affordable". Once you get big cost overruns on a project that started out as marginally affordable, you're toast. So NASA was basically saying "Yes, JWST is marginally affordable to astrophysics, but we're reassured because large cost overruns can't ever happen here, doing high technology at NASA. We're so sure of that, we won't let our Decadal Survey even think about it." The NASA people who said that were either very smart, they thought, because that meant that no community discussion would come to bear if there were problems, or supremely dumb in believing their own words.

Of course, for large missions whose affordability isn't marginal, large cost increases just push the schedule to the right. But the cost overrun on JWST yields a program that, within the astrophysics division, the budget doesn't close. The Division can barely afford to support the marching army, much less actually get the mission done.

The community doesn't do itself any favors by reflexively demanding that JWST be saved at all costs. That's what I'm hearing. The Decadal Survey committee would, I think, have considered the situation more carefully.

Also, to those of you up there who are saying that the JWST cost overrun is peanuts compared with other national efforts (e.g. war in Iraq), so funding it should be easy, please stop and take a deep breath. Unlike expenditures for foreign wars, JWST money comes out of a NASA budget that is pretty stable, if not decreasing. The reservoir is the NASA budget, not the U.S. treasury.

I'm not going to come out and say that JWST should be canceled. I guess it depends a lot on how such a cancellation is structured, or what other options there are. All I'm saying is, like the inspired title of this thread, we've got HUGE problems that go far beyond whether we're going to have a JWST.

By Dennis Laswell (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

Fixing NASA is simple: eviscerate the manned programs, pump up the science budget and unmanned programs. We get so much more bang for our buck with the latter than with the former. The moon landing was nearly a half-century ago. It's time to run NASA according to the realities of today, not some over-romanticized version of "how things used to be".

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

IMHO the roots to this problem go back to the mid-60s and defense contracting. It was always a lucrative line of work and contracts were huge. The problem is that defense contractors got good at gaming the system and shifted focus from producing a product to make a profit to simply making a profit. They learned that through subtle manipulations of the process you could maximize profits and reduce overhead and complications involved in doing the actual work. One of the better books on the problem is "Profits Without Production":…

The process starts with defining what is to be built. Great care is taken to divide the construction illogically between major contractors, as vaguely as possible to encourage time consuming disputes, and to incorporate as many undefined and 'to be developed' parts as possible. Toss in a few components that use novel materials and processes is always good. Embellish and make it all as complicated as possible. If possible make sure the design contradicts itself.

Then always make sure it is written in such a way that contracts are free to subcontract, and sub-subcontract and ... But also make sure that the contractors are not on the hook. Make sure the compensation for rework and redesign is generous and all costs of conflict between contractors is billable to the project. Embellish and make as complicated as possible. If possible make sure the contract contradicts itself.

Design and contract written you have to make sure you get the job. Your main tool is the estimate. The estimate only has to be plausible and only so honest as to avoid actual prosecution. And it all has to be slanted on the low side. You bid low, far lower than the actual cost, to get the contract and make your money subcontracting, managing, working out disputes, and subcontracting rework and redesign projects. These nested projects all get he same treatment.

A key to understanding this is that profits are always larger and easier to get the farther away you get from physical labor. At one time all the major contractors had their own construction crews and all the material goods necessary to build. But that is messy. You need machinery that needs maintenance and operators, and on a construction site things get complicated by issues like rain.

Over time all the major defense contractors got into the business of 'consulting', and writing contracts, and subcontracting everything that could be subcontracted. It is a much cleaner line of work. And you hang with a nicer crowd. Instead and of rough construction workers you hang with lawyers and executives who run offices dedicated to making everything as complicated and as opaque as possible, and billing the client. You want complicated because every step is billable. And you want it opaque so that nobody can ever prove that anyone did anything wrong.

In essence, the entire process has been optimized for profit at the expense of production. Which is why KBR, Halliburton, Carlisle Group, et al are so often seen with uncompleted and poorly done work, never seem to know how it happened when investigated, and consistently make huge profits, and continue to get contracts.

It also should be noted that this optimization for profit and shift from production to management and churning for profits is the model for business worldwide.

How much money is wasted on projects that are axed due to project cost overruns? It seems there is a thriving aborted project industry that would be bolstering our economy... if all that money wasn't coming from public coffers.

It's incredibly wasteful, mind numbingly my daughter would say "Epic Fail."

Whatever they did in Europe with the supercollider they actually completed... needs to be done here. Whatever it takes. If people can't stop this from happening then whether industry, high technology companies, scientists and the public at large - WE ALL LOSE.

...might as well drive horse 'n buggies and raise barns, although I'm sure the Amish would do that better.

I'm running out of things to be proud of, folks. How about you?

Perfect example of how bureaucracy will spend every penny it has then far more, and an even better example of how private industry would fair much better with such projects. If that budget had been given to a private entity, with penalties upon lateness, I bet it would be on time and under budget.

I mean sure, 4/5 of the world doesn't have clean water to drink, but we absolutely should spend more money on space telescopes and particle accelerators our military

There FIFY, you see what I did there?

By Doug Little (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

It seems that the Joint Strike Fighter could be up to $38 billion over budget where are all the people calling for the military to kill that project, oh that's right the're all hypocrites.

By Doug Little (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

It certainly looks like US is falling down, and by no accident also. When one spends 19% on defense and only 0.8% on all science, while existing in the world which is absolutely science and technology driven; the demise of space program is a sad but not unexpected thing to me.

But as Monty Pythons said.. always look on the bright side of life. Across the globe, a new super power is entering it's golden age. And here is what the guys who invented black powder, printing press, bricks and many other cool stuff have to say ;) Yes.. the China. I dug a bit on the net and found some cool things.

1. HXMT (The Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope)
it's due to launch next year (2012).. here is a part of description from the site:

"The Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) is a collimated hard X-ray (20-200 keV) telescope with the highest sensitivity and spatial resolution power in the world. It will perform an all-sky hard X-ray survey, in which about 1000 new hard X-ray sources will be discovered, and sensitive pointed observations of important cosmic X-ray sources including black holes and neutron stars. "

cost... check this out.. 146 million $ . That's pocket change in comparison to NASA's way of thinking, yet it's doable, with the right mindset and management.

and the links:
some more info:…

2. FAST (Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope)
Due to be finished in 2014, this is to become a largest earth based radio telescope.. and by a good margin. Arecibo still holds the record with 305m. This will be almost twice the size.

... so, the next couple of years will still be exiting enough. And maybe US wakes up and realizes it's mistakes and cleans the house and starts a new.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

Perfect example of how bureaucracy will spend every penny it has then far more, and an even better example of how private industry would fair much better with such projects. If that budget had been given to a private entity, with penalties upon lateness, I bet Perfect example of how bureaucracy will spend every penny it has then far more, and an even better example of how private industry would fair much better with such projects. If that budget had been given to a private entity, with penalties upon lateness, I bet it would be on time and under budget.

Better bet is that a private entity would never have taken the job to spend years developing it with no long term profits guaranteed.

Oh, you scientists are SO selfish, wanting a few extra billion to ensure our knowledge of the universe continues to grow.

Meanwhile, down here on Earth, the U.S. Coast Guard needs 250 additional boats to rescue idiots who venture out in bad weather, at a cost of 1.5 billion each.

In comparison, wouldn't y'all agree that telescope thingy seems like a big waste of money?

As has been pointed out elsewhere, for all the large cost of JWST, it's still not going to cost any more than what we paid for Hubble, and very few people would argue that HST wasn't worth the money... Even the highest, most recent numbers for JWST, $8.7B for launch plus 5 years operations, only represents less than 3 percent of NASA's budget for the next decade! Really, we can't afford 3% for our scientific flagship?

The comparison with the SSC is very wise and very sobering. It's not as if cutting the funding for the SSC made available billions of dollars for smaller or more innovative particle physics experiments. No, that funding just went away, left the field entirely. And we all lost for it. To those who are saying that "we should cancel JWST and spend the money on other missions", well, I wish that were an option, but realistically it's not. If JWST goes away, we lose all that funding, and astrophysics probably follows particle physics into decline in the US. (Only this time there's no European competition to do the science that will be lost...)

You don't get it. If the astronomy community had realized how much HST was going to cost, it would never have advocated it. But the important point is that money would have gone into a HUGE array of instruments that would have provided astonishing science that HST would not have been around to provide.

You can play with numbers any way you like. JWST is 3% of NASA's budget. Or maybe JWST is 0.01% of the US federal budget. Tiny!! Gosh, my salary is only 0.000002% of the federal budget. So how dare anyone not want to keep me employed? I cost almost nothing! In fact, I can *steal* my salary from the U.S. government. Why? Well, because it's such an insignificant amount! Why should anyone care? Playing with numbers in this way is fun, no? Also pretty stupid and meaningless.

But how about that JWST is about 35% of the NASA Astrophysics budget. Oops. Somewhat bigger. The point is that this astrophysics budget is, if we're lucky, solidly level. The issue is, what would 35% of the astrophysics budget do for astrophysics if it weren't doing JWST.

I don't think it's clear that we lose the funds if JWST goes away. I don't think it's clear that we keep the funds after JWST is launched either. But if our advocates go to Congress and essentially say "You dummies! You don't see how great the JWST science is! That's why you don't want to fund it", you can be damned sure Congress won't give us any money back. But that's what our advocates are doing, in their naivité. That's why I say that astronomers should be pondering how best to recover our credibility, as opposed to how to best recover JWST. Inthe long run, the former may be far more important than the latter.

By Dennis Laswell (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

Nice,exsiting words, looks like person|author really care about science...but in the same time, he is "already lost in space" of "Not-Reality"! Someone already wrote:"
I mean sure, 4/5 of the world doesn't have clean water to drink, but we absolutely should spend more money on space telescopes and particle accelerators."...This IS REAL!, but...intelectual rain-man can't-see it and will-NOT-see it. I'm very-very sorry, for all of you...well-educated-well-fed..but absolutly human-less people. Did you ever think...for whom...all this science?!...why?!..what is the point?! if YOU even can't see the sufferings of the real-human-beings-currently-living HERE!! on Earth !! NOW !!...honestly...I do NOT think you even capable to understand what I'm writing about. Not to spoiled the party...but you are on the same level as bank thinking ONLY About Your Self....sad...

By VladimirJoseph… (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

Geez Vladimir, put down your tumbler of clean water, get off your internet account and your computer and use some of your spare time you're using for this rant to do something about the real sufferings of human beings. When you've done that, come back to our party and enlighten us, as we count our stolen certificates of deposit.

Actually, please don't. This thread is about smart ways to accomplish science, not about whether to accomplish science.

By Anatoly Benjam… (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

*Hello again, This note is for people, who are NOT "shoot first and ask questions later". OK, my first reaction on remark of "Anatoly" was: "O-well, this is exactly what I say `I do NOT think you even capable to understand ...bla-bla`",it's no point to write anything more, but...after little thinking...This is maybe a very good example of what I trying to say. obviously, this is Not a situation, what can be resolved shortly, Actually, it can't be resolved at all...never. It always will be shortage of money, it always will be Large and very expensive projects, it always will be people, who want to do it by "ANY COST", or at least "very-very badly", and always will be people, who do Not think money have to be "wasted" this, What I trying to say, that..."Money does not grow on trees" (I hope we all on the same page on this one!) and we actually, even NOT talking about "How to make more money", but looks like we have a very differen opinions on how to spent them(money). Just for a record: I was not involved in any way with any of projects mentioned in current article, I didn't promised to build a Tevatron for $x-amount or James Webb Space Telescope for $y-amount...etc., so, please, do not be mad on me for this. p.s. Somehow, author never mentioned; who ARE reposible for that, will be (I think) much better written acticle, if some analysys was done about the past, so, we can have a better picture on the future, but.. that is a very different story, so, what I (and some other people) thinkig, that "Maybe" spending Billions-and-Billion-and-Billions of people's money on this project(s) is NOT the best deal right now, "Maybe" Right Now some different projects and different people is "in more needs", "Maybe" we can achieve much better results if we will do this "in-direct-but-smarther-better-way"?,`God works peculiar way`..well, "Maybe" we also, have to look for a different-"peculiar" way to get where we want to be, "Maybe" we have to have better and serious (adult-style) discussion before we start point finger and call bad names on people, who have slightly different opinion on a subject...or this is too much to ask?! Or "Maybe" I'm right, and you people so blind???...This is one of situations then I want to be wrong. I really hope, we as a people, will have a beter future...

By VladimirJoseph… (not verified) on 24 Aug 2011 #permalink

This is political, not logistical. I would want it funded if it cost 10 times as much. I might flinch at 100 times.

Phone up Bill Gates and ask him if he wants JWST renamed BGST for a couple billion?

Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel.

With the SSC, serves you guys right for trying to build it in Texas. You know how those guys feel about science.

Galileo, Einstein, Copernicus, Sagan... are "Rolling in their Graves". If we keep going in the "Backwards" direction we are headed, we too will be joining them in this dance to "Nowhere".

Oh, how DO "we feel about science" in Texas? Please, tell us. This should be very amusing.

By CJ at TAMU Cyclotron (not verified) on 25 Aug 2011 #permalink

"Oh, how DO "we feel about science" "

Uh, "you" isn't "we". YOU can feel OK about science, but the general feel of the populace is that science is wussy and probably communist. Definitely WRONG because God did it all.

But ALL generalisations are seen wrong on examples. It's whether they're a better guess than any other generalisation that makes it correct.

I thing being axed by congress is only classified as suicide in very generous jurisdictions, like walking in a dark alley in the shades of ankh morpork.

"It's whether they're a better guess than any other generalisation that makes it correct."

Oh, in that case, I have a superior generalization: some people love and understand science, other people don't. Feeding the worst sterotypes about others is what eventually lead to the worst events in history.

By CJ at TAMU Cyclotron (not verified) on 25 Aug 2011 #permalink

"Oh, in that case, I have a superior generalization: some people love and understand science, other people don't"

And that doesn't mean that the generalisation about TEXANS is wrong.

So what was the point?

#48, wow?

"Oh, in that case, I have a superior generalization: some people love and understand science, other people don't"
And that doesn't mean that the generalisation about TEXANS is wrong.
So what was the point?

The point was in the very next sentence (don't you read?)

Feeding the worst sterotypes about others is what eventually lead to the worst events in history.

I prefer to refer to all gov't expenditures not in units of USD, but in units of "days in Iraq". For instance, look how differently this passage reads:

In 1987, Congress was told the [SSC] project could be completed for 16 days in Iraq, and the Texas site was selected the next year.

Major construction began in 1991, and over the next two years, more than 23 kilometers (over 14 miles) of tunnel were dug, with seventeen shafts leading down to it.

But already by this point, nearly one week in Iraq had been spent, and the SSC was nowhere near completion. By time Congress cancelled the project in October of 1993, the cost estimates for completion had ballooned to somewhere around six weeks in Iraq, with the Department of Energy's Inspector General releasing a report very critical of the high costs and poor management of the project.

We should pass on approximately one pointless foreign adventure each decade, and in exchange we can provide effectively unlimited funding for science. Just sayin'...

Feeding the worst sterotypes about others is what eventually lead to the worst events in history.

Tell that to the Texans who routinely pretend they're better than New York, California, New England, and just about everywhere/everyone else on Earth.

In particular, please tell that to the Texans who tell New Yorkers they don't understand the meaning of a terrorist attack that happened in...New York!

Because James Webb -- at an estimated cost of less than three weeks in Iraq -- is the top priority right now. We've put all our eggs in this basket. Well, guess what?

A little less than a year ago, it was determined that the three-weeks-in-Iraq figure was unrealistic, and that it would actually cost an extra 4 days in Iraq beyond that to complete it.

Just sayin'.


I use the same technique for everyday items except compare them to drinks, like Martini's and craft beer.

By Doug Little (not verified) on 25 Aug 2011 #permalink

Yes, yes, many good comments. Let me be inconsistent and agree with your fine ideas even when they disagree with mine. Yes let me hold for a while the conflicting evidence. I am not ready yet to defend or throw away my ideas or yours.

OK here are a couple other thoughts:
1) the US still seems to be the worlds biggest investor in science. But comparison by country especially the % of GDP tells a little different story. by the way $ PPP means Dollars Purchasing Power Parity. But these are 2006 numbers.
2) But then I read this article about asia gaining on US science spending and follow the link to the 2010 US report, "Chinaâs R&D/GDP ratio more than doubled, from 0.6% in 1996 to 1.5% in 2007, a period during which Chinaâs GDP grew at 12% annuallyâan enormous, sustained increase. The gap in Chinaâs R&D/GDP ratio relative to those of developed economies suggests that Chinaâs R&D volume can continue to grow rapidly... The North America regionâs (United States, Canada, and Mexico) share of estimated world R&D activity decreased from 40% to 35%; the EUâs share declined from 31% to 28%. The Asia/Pacific regionâs share increased from 24% to 31% even with Japanâs comparatively low growth... In a telling development, the worldâs R&D expenditures have been on an 11-year doubling path, growing faster than total global economic output. This indicator of commitment to innovation went from an estimated $525 billion in 1996 to approximately $1.1 trillion in 2007... Chinaâs researchers more than doubled in number, from just over half a million to more than 1.4 million, boosting its world share from 13% to 25% over the period... Science and technology are no longer the province of developed nations; they have, in a sense, become âdemocratized.â Governments of many countries have firmly built S&T aspects into their development policies as they vie to make their economies more knowledge- and technologyintensive and, thereby, ensure their competitiveness in a globalizing world. These policies include long-term investments in higher education to develop human talent, infrastructure development, support for research and development, attraction of foreign direct investment and technologically advanced multinational firms, and the eventual development of indigenous high-technology capabilities. "
3) Then of course I read…
"âHe was one of our stars,â Robert H. Austin, a Princeton physics professor, said by telephone. âI thought it was completely crazy.â... Chinaâs leaders do not. Determined to reverse the drain of top talent that accompanied its opening to the outside world over the past three decades, they are using their now ample financial resources â and a dollop of national pride â to entice scientists and scholars home... A 2008 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that within the next decade or two, China would pass the United States in its ability to transform its research and development into products and services that can be marketed to the world."

OK so the US is still tops in natural science research and innovation. But we can't be complacent. We must have a vision to maintain our leadership in science. And if cost overrun is an inherent price of doing science that no one anywhere else can do; then we have to make that investment. And yes it is fair to make budgetary tradeoffs between science and the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We do need to tax the rich a bit more. We need to educate everyone a bit more, especially the poor. An economy will not remain competitive if it's major growth industries are the military and prisons.

Oh well, feel free to argue with me. I am still arguing with myself. But one thing is certain, neglecting education, science and innovation is not an option.

The problem with many of these "big science" projects is that they are oversold.
Take the Superconducting Supercollider. One "super" is enough. I'll add that
some excellent physicists called this machine the "desertron", fearing it
might not have enough energy to reach any new physics. Now the hunt's on
for the Higgs boson, publicized as the God particle. ("Let there be mass",
you know. Of course you do.)
There's bad news about those Goldilocks planets: neither too hot nor too cold
for water, and so for life. But an article in the current issue of "American
Scientist" points out that for the majority of stars, planets in the Goldilocks
zone would be blasted with X-rays.
Certainly it would be foolish to deny that an enormous amount of
extremely interesting and important knowledge about the universe would
be gained from the proposed space telescopes. Moreover it could be
appreciated by the general educated public.
As for a return to the moon, President Obama remarked that "we've
been there". Perhaps. It is outrageous that the final three Apollo missions
were cancelled. They were to be devoted to the scientific payoff.
However, we had beaten the U.S.S.R. to the moon, and there was a very
costly war on.

By Paul Chernoff (not verified) on 25 Aug 2011 #permalink

""The point was in the very next sentence (don't you read?)"

Feeding the worst sterotypes about others is what eventually lead to the worst events in history.2"

No, I read it.

It was blank assertion.

I blankly assert it is false.

Do you believe ANYTHING anyone else tells you?

@58 Tsering Dolma
Your interest in this field (or any field) is enough. We all get 2nd and 3rd and 4th chances to learn. We may not learn as deep as we would wish but we may continuously learn.

This blog is a learning place. Follow the links. Ask you questions, sometimes theay will be answered. Also, you will distinquish between us various characters and realize that I have this or that bias or chip on my shoulder and thus perhaps give my answer less credibility to so and so who seems more informed less biased or such.

But it is you is are listening to your reasoning and others with an open mind. And in spite of all of the diverse opinions and conflicting evidence; you will find that you will learn on this blog. Ethan is a good teacher.

So you do have a chance to learn. As well this is a welcome place, a community.

Best regards.

> The comparison with the SSC is very wise and very sobering. > It's not as if cutting the funding for the SSC made
> available billions of dollars for smaller or more
> innovative particle physics experiments.

Not entirely true - FermiLab got a new main injector ring as
a consolation prize after the SSC was canceled.

FOAD, Texans.

this is a good site The comparison with the SSC is very wise and very sobering.

By larsjaeger (not verified) on 06 Oct 2014 #permalink

A "private"company between tech firms and government Science technology officials from across

By larsjaeger (not verified) on 07 Oct 2014 #permalink

A “private”company between tech firms and government Science technology officials from across

By larsjaeger (not verified) on 07 Oct 2014 #permalink