Have We Stopped Dreaming?

An artist's rendition of the James Webb Space Telescope

Cost overruns in large-scale scientific projects occur more frequently than not, with NASA being one of the biggest culprits. The most recent high-profile casualty is of course the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). There are serious concerns that the entire project may be cancelled, after proposals for its funding to be zeroed out. Of course, it’s not all NASA’s fault (see the article here for some background on what happened).

In the current economic environment, calls to ‘save the JWST at all costs’ need to be considered more carefully. Someone somewhere needs to bear those costs. On one hand, astronomers and scientists in general are saddened about the loss of the science that the JWST will produce. On the other hand, they are concerned that any efforts to redirect funding towards the JWST will come at the expense of their own pet projects. The question then arises as to which scientific project should be sacrificed.

I recommend this thought provoking article by Jeff Foust in the Space Review.

I recently sat through discussions on the design and development of the Square Kilometre Array (another mega-science astronomy project, possibly larger in scale than the CERN Large Hadron Collider), where the issue of science prioritization came to the fore again. How does one prioritize science? How do we determine which discovery is going to be more important when making decisions on instrument design and the appropriation of funds? Can scientific discoveries ever be measured quantitatively?

The Hubble Space Telescope

I also attended a talk on success indicators in mega-science projects earlier this week. Phil Crosby, the speaker who is working on this topic for his PhD thesis, ended with a profound question: Do cost overruns and delays really matter? 20 years down the road, will the instrument be remembered for its cost overruns, or the science that it produces? The Hubble Space Telescope was estimated to cost about US$400 million, but ended up costing close to US$2.5 billion – which does not even include the additional costs required for the space missions to fix its flawed mirror. In hindsight, would we rather have that money back and take away Hubble and its amazing discoveries, not to mention the awe that its images evoke? If a couple of billions of dollars more were required to build the JWST, and many more years of man-hours, will it really matter 20 years from now?

Have we stopped dreaming?


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