Head of Webb investigation: Webb was “a step too far”

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The head of an investigation panel into the James Webb Space Telescope admitted this week that, though he and the panel fully support the telescope’s completion and launch, he also believes the telescope was too ambitious and “a step too far.”

Speaking at a meeting of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board Oct. 29, Tom Young said that while the mission may ultimately be a success, its difficulties provide lessons as NASA considers future large astronomy missions in the next decadal survey.

“I, personally, have come to the conclusion that JWST had too many inventions, too much risk, and was a step too far,” he said at the end of a presentation about the review board’s work.

Young emphasized that he was neither opposed to JWST being completed nor had doubts it could be done successfully. “There are a group people who are diehard supporters of JWST, and there are others who support it, but they’re really angry at the cost growth and the schedule delays,” he said.

You think? Webb was supposed to cost about $500 million, and launch in 2007. Its budget is now almost $10 billion, and it will not launch before 2021. In the process it has destroyed the entire astronomy program at NASA, preventing the construction of any other space telescopes.

The key question is whether the astronomy community or NASA has learned anything from this disaster. I personally am doubtful, since they are still pushing for WFIRST, a similar big boondoggle that will cost billions and is already overbudget and behind schedule, though it is only in its design stage.



  • wayne

    “What Comes After James Webb and WFIRST?
    Four Amazing Future Space Telescopes”
    -Frasier Cain, June 2018

  • mkent

    It’s hard to tell what’s happening with WFIRST right now. Yes, it has some budgetary issues right out of the gate, but part of the reason for that is that because of JWST, they’re paying attention to budgetary issues right from the start. JWST never got that kind of scrutiny until billions had already been spent.

    It could be that WFIRST is another hopelessly lost program like JWST, or it could be that the extra scrutiny that WFIRST is getting will get the budget issues all worked up front, unlike JWST.

    I, for one, welcome the extra scrutiny.

  • pzatchok

    Turn it over to a private concern like Musk of Bezos.

    Tell them they will get paid a billion after its launched and working.

    Its cheaper then leaving them to the teams they have now.

  • wodun

    A lot of things can be done for $10 billion. Maybe the surface of Mars could have been mapped in great detail or even the beginning of mapping the asteroid belt. There is value in doing lots of different things but some things are more practical than others and could potentially have larger direct impacts on humanity. What if they did a series of voyager type satellites launched over a period of years to tour the solar system before leaving it? The updated observations would be very valuable.

    A lot of NASA projects are grandiose one offs rather than building multiples of things that replicate and innovate previous projects. Its not like we know everything there is to know about Pluto or Venus or anything else.

    The space industry is at a point where there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there that is arguably a better target than a lot of the things NASA and the scientific community want to do.

  • Col Beausabre

    Wodun, I place the blame for grandiose projects on one thing, somebody is pushing for a Nobel. In the era of Big Science we should get rid of the darn things. The lab and/or project director gets to go to Stockholm, which totally ignores the contributions of the hundreds, maybe thousands of scientists without which nothing could have been accomplished. And people running these things aren’t doing science – they’re managers (I can remember my dad, a chemical engineer, saying how long it had been since he had done engineering once he got promoted to corporate HQ, even though his title was still that of an engineer). It’s like what has happened to baseball, everyone going for the home run rather than playing small ball and singling, bunting and stealing bases to manufacture runs.

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