Hubble's Replacement Is in Trouble. What Happened?

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Yesterday, NASA announced that its premiere next-generation astrophysics mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, is overbudget and behind schedule.

The total cost of the launching the telescope may end up at $6.5 billion, the agency reported at a press briefing, a far cry from the $1 billion initially projected.

A special report found that the mission, on which a generation of scientists are counting, has had serious managerial problems. The project, the report bluntly stated, "was simply not executable within the budgeted resources."

In order to keep building the Webb and launch it in 2015, the rest of NASA may have to warp to fit its needs. That means other projects won't be funded or will be scaled back. That's not ideal, but it might be the best choice that NASA's got.

Let's be clear about why the mission is important: the Webb is the next Hubble. It will extend human understanding in many of the ways that everyone's favorite space telescope did. We'll be able to see farther back in time, learn new things about the universe, and possibly resolve liquid water on a nearby habitable exoplanets. The Webb, as Lee Billings put it in his definitive piece on the telescope, is "the key to almost every big question that astronomers hope to answer in the coming decades."

Not to mention that the Webb is the telescope that will generate the images that will adorn your desktop. If there are still Time magazine covers in 2015, the Webb's work will cover one.

So, what happened? How did such a phenomenally important project end up in such a predicament? Billings provides three key explanations, which I'll excerpt here.

First, the metrics on which it would be measured "mission-ready" changed. After a few notable failures of "faster, better, cheaper" missions around the turn of the millennium, NASA went back to its more rigorous construction and testing protocols. That pushed the Webb's cost up.

Second, because scientists all knew the Webb was the premiere astrophysics mission for an entire generation, they wanted the telescope to be able to address their own particular issues. As Peter Stockman of the Space Telescope Science Institute told Billings, "Everyone fears it will be the last opportunity in their scientific lifetime." Like bloated software, suddenly a telescope designed to do a few things well ends up with carrying a bunch of other instruments.

Third, the capabilities astronomers wanted from the Webb required deploying new and unproven technologies. You can't always tell how smoothly their development is going to go until it's too late. Not only that, but the JWST would have to work flawlessly from the get-go. It's positioning farther away from Earth than Hubble (four times farther than the moon, actually) means that repair missions would be out of the question.

Chances are that the Webb will get built and fly. There's just too much and too many riding on its success. But in an era of tight budgets, other programs seem likely to suffer. NASA has elevated the mission from a "project" to a "program," which means that it'll be managed from the agency's central offices. But that might not prevent the Webb from being, as a Nature headline called it, "The telescope that ate astronomy."

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Images: 1. The Webb's primary mirror; 2. A full-scale model of the Webb.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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