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Should NASA Build the James Webb Telescope?


It probably depends on who you ask, but the question of pure scientific endeavor usually prompts a heated response.

Governments around the world spend tens of billions of dollars (or more!) each year on pure scientific research that will likely never lead to a technology that will effect our daily lives.

And in this day and age of financial belt tightening, the question of whether we should be spending such enormous sums of money on pure research is a valid one. And currently the biggest offender of them all is the James Webb Space Telescope.

Hubble's Replacement

It wasn't long after Hubble was launched that a replacement observatory was being planned. There weren't a lot of details then (1996), but the scientific community was already assuming that, with the success of Hubble, a successor was imminent.

In 2002, once design studies were underway and specifics about the project began to emerge, the vision of the new telescope came into focus.

This new instrument would be significantly more powerful, infinitely more reliable (Hubble had to have several repair and upgrade missions over its lifetime) and considerably more complex.

All of this grandeur came with a price. 2.5 billion dollars, to be precise. This, of course, is an immense amount of money. But is a relative bargain to the 9 billion dollars that was shelled out for Hubble (in 2006 dollars) once you include all of the space shuttle missions that were needed to keep it operational over the years.

The Problems Begin

With a project of this scale, a significant amount of time and money needed to be spent to make sure that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated.

Specifically the James Webb would be designed with such precision and care that no maintenance would be needed during the operational lifetime of the observatory; which is currently hoped to be 10 years, 5 at the minimum.

This is important because the telescope will orbit at the Lagrange 2 point, about a million miles from the Earth.

The Lagrange 2 point is where the Sun's and Earth's combined gravitational forces will keep the satellite locked into the same orbital period as the Earth as it goes around the Sun. This is handy since it will be free from atmospheric interference and will be shielded from the Sun's solar radiation by the Earth (for the most part).

However, at such a distance a maintenance mission is a near impossibility. At a distance of more than four times the distance of the Earth to the Moon, the Lagrange 2 (or L2) point puts the James Webb out of a technicians reach.

So it must work the first time, and continue operating without failure for a decade. This is a tall order.

It should be no surprise then that the initial cost of 2.5 billion dollars has swelled to nearly 9 billion. While the launch date has been pushed back, several times, from the original 2014 estimate to likely 2018 at the earliest.

Part of the delays and cost overruns can be traced back to mismanagement by those in charge of the project. Whether it was incompetence or ethical failure, those in change certainly let the project down.

However, there is another element to this; the fact that this is one of the most challenging technical problems of this generation. And sometimes the solutions to problems of this magnitude take more effort and resources than was initially anticipated.

The Chopping Block

This brings us back to the housing crisis. Congressional belt-tightening led to large government projects coming under strict scrutiny. And when one of those projects is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule and doesn't even appear to have a practical application... Well, the James Webb found itself on the budgetary chopping block.

So this begs the question. Is it worth it? Should we, in this day and age, be spending billions of dollars, tax payer dollars, to build a scientific instrument that has no hope of improving the lives of the citizens that are footing the bill?

The obvious answer is no; we should not commit such dollars to a project such as this. Not in today's economic climate. Not when the money can be spent elsewhere.

But I don't think the answer is that obvious. I don't think we should rush to seek the practical solution. Why? Because science is not about being practical, it is about the pursuit of knowledge. About understanding the Universe around us. About stretching the limits of our understanding.

Sometimes science can be practical, and that is great, but when we start quelling pure science in favor of only those things that may bring us money, then I think that we lose an element of how we are as a species.

As humans we need to seek truth, and there is no greater way to that end than to invest in the dreams of tomorrow. To reach, sometimes literally, for the stars and seek what lay at the edge of the Universe.

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