As the $5 Billion James Webb Telescope Goes, So Goes the Future of Space Science

The model weighs 12,000 pounds. EADS Astrium

As the pieces of the James Webb Space Telescope – the next-gen replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope – come together, there’s plenty of excitement in the astronomy community, but as Nature reports, there is plenty of anxiety as well. Webb, scheduled for launch in 2014, simply has to work. The massive observatory that promises to look back through the universe to the formation of the first galaxies has swelled to such expense that it has swallowed the budgets for other science instruments whole. If Webb fails, astronomical science could be set back a generation.

Webb’s price tag currently sits at about $5 billion, a bit of a cost overrun from the original $500 million to $1 billion cost estimated when Webb was conceived as Hubble’s successor almost two decades ago. The project keeps going back to the well, asking for an additional $95 million in 2009 and $20 million more this year. It has requested another $60 million for next year, and no one knows if that’s where the budgetary bleeding will end for 2011. Or for 2012 or 2013 for that matter.

Part of the reason for the rampant cost overruns stems from the fact that Webb is truly a magnificent science machine, sporting all kinds of complex instrumentation that – if it works – will make great leaps for astronomy. But researchers – seeing their one chance in a decade or two to get the kind of research equipment they want launched to a Lagrange point almost a million miles from Earth – have piled on the complexity. For every expensive instrument, Webb needs more expensive safeguards to ensure the instruments can survive the harsh conditions of space.

Those costs overruns have eaten away at other missions’ budgets, grounding missions like the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope until after Webb launches. There’s simply not enough cash to go around. Meaning that if Webb fails to live up to expectations – or worse, fails completely – there aren’t a bunch of other science missions on deck to keep astronomy moving forward. Given the fact that in the next five years most (if not all) of NASA’s 14 main telescopes will be decommissioned, failure by the Web mission could leave a gaping void in the continuity of space science, effectively setting the field back a decade or longer while new observatories can be prepared and launched.