A Memo on JWST

by  Garth Illingworth

This memo set consists of three parts: (1) discusses the background and the consequences of terminating JWST; (2) summarizes the impacts of terminating JWST in 10 "talking points"; and (3) highlights 10 myths regarding JWST that occur in conversation and print.

JWST - Background and Challenges

(1) Background and Challenges

The House Appropriations Committee released the fiscal year 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill in mid July. NASA loses nearly $2B in total, of which $431 is lost from NASA Science. The majority of this lost science funding is from terminating JWST.  The Space science part reads:

"$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year's level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management."

The $431 million is removed from Science at NASA and is lost to the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). It is for deficit reduction. Thus Astrophysics will permanently lose the funding that is now being used to fund JWST.

The impact is two-fold. First, JWST will not be finished and launched, with the loss of all its science opportunities and the public excitement that would come from a more powerful Hubble successor. Second, losing JWST also means that the Astrophysics Division will not recover the funding that is now being used to fund JWST construction. As JWST construction is completed funds would have been returned to the Astrophysics Division to develop new major programs like WFIRST, IXO, LISA, or a post-Kepler Exoplanet mission. Doing these projects within the current Astrophysics budget without the added JWST funding level would not be possible. Furthermore, there is no obvious way to increment the Astrophysics budget if JWST funding is lost. The SMD budget is tight - roughly $10B was transferred from science to other areas of NASA since 2005, as a result of the change in direction in NASA that occurred in the 2004 Bush "Vision for Space Exploration". Instead of the planned budget of about $6.7B in SMD, the budget is now under $5B (see the discussion on page 3 and the figure on page 4), and would decrease further to $4.5B if the final FY2012 budget adopts the current House Appropriations level for NASA.

An example of how tight funding is in space science at NASA is exemplified by what has happened to the Astrophysics Division budget over the last few years. Every time an astronomy program has been completed, terminated or reduced over the last few years, the Astrophysics Division has lost the funding. When HST servicing finished in late 2008, Astrophysics lost over $100M per year. Terminating JWST would impact astronomy and astrophysics in a number of ways. We would lose the successor to Hubble, lose JWST's unique scientific opportunities and capabilities, and lose the research funding that supports graduate students and postdocs across the nation. In addition, astronomy would lose the ability to do future major missions.

The Appropriations Committee decision is not the last word. The full House will consider this bill when it returns from recess. With the deficit reduction effort in full swing, however, JWST is unlikely to be recovered in the House. The Senate will have a separate bill on NASA funding which probably will not kill JWST. Thus its fate will be resolved in the House-Senate conference that will generate the final bill. While the focus is on Congress, the likelihood of a successful recovery will rest in significant part with the Administration. Will NASA, OSTP and OMB be willing to support JWST? To date the Administration's support for basic research and fundamental science has been weak. Thus we need to help policy makers and politicians (across both parties, within both House and Senate, and within the Administration) understand the impact that terminating JWST would have on the future of American scientific visibility and productivity.

It is not being alarmist to note that, in the present political climate, the centerpiece of astronomy's future is at considerable risk. JWST and astronomy have entered a very dangerous zone. 

Before summarizing the impacts/talking points I would like to note that the 2010 Independent Comprehensive Review Panel (ICRP) on JWST (requested by Senator Mikulski and carried out with full NASA support) had as one of its key findings that the technical progress on JWST had been "commendable and often excellent."  The NASA Administrator stated clearly that NASA would respond to the ICRP recommendations, and supports completing JWST in a timely way. NASA has been making the ICRP's recommended changes to the program management and oversight, and is trying to support the key recommendations of the ICRP regarding enhancements to the budget.

The ICRP report and NASA's response are here:



NASA has released an extensive discussion of their revised plans for JWST completion and launch (the "replan") since the ICRP report. JWST Program Director Rick Howard presented this replan to the NASA Astrophysics Subcommittee. Since this is a FACA committee the presentation is public and can be distributed freely to any interested person. The powerpoint presentation can be found at either location:



Rick Howard's presentation includes a schedule for a 2018 launch, along with summaries of key issues that have been the subject of much discussion over the last few months. The recent excellent technical progress is also presented, particularly the remarkable accomplishment of the completion of the polishing of the JWST mirrors. The 18 beryllium flight mirror segments for the JWST mirror meet their requirement of being smooth with ripples less than 20 nm (a nm is a billionth of a meter), and their cryogenic performance has been demonstrated to be excellent. The figure on the next page, while complicated, shows all the finished mirrors with their measured performance. The mirrors are so smooth that if each were the size of the USA, the typical ripples would be just 2 inches high. This is amazing! Roughly 75% of all the hardware for JWST has been delivered or is in fabrication. Revised and more realistic test programs are in place.

Rick Howard also showed the major hits that the SMD budget suffered in the middle of the last decade that severely limited the ability of the SMD Associate Administrator to deal with problems on major projects (e.g., Mars Science Lab and JWST). The change in the budget for SMD from the planned level to the cut level corresponded to a huge loss of roughly $10B since 2005 (see the SMD budget figure on the next page). The cuts made it particularly difficult for SMD to provide the contingency levels needed for JWST, especially when other SMD missions also had problems. The presentation also includes summaries of NASA's actions in response to the ICRP report, the extensive management changes that have been made, the substantial milestones that have been met, and also gives considerable background on progress on the JWST replan for a 2018 launch.

What is not included is a budget profile. This remains unresolved within NASA and OMB. The ICRP was asked to give the lowest cost to launch (and thus the earliest likely launch date). The ICRP indicated that the lowest cost profile would lead to a launch in late 2015 for a total LifeCycle Cost (LCC) of $6.5B (LCC includes $0.6B for the baseline 5 years of science operations and research, though the mission is expected to last for 10 years), and was predicated on substantial additional funding in FY2011 and FY2012 to ensure that JWST got back on track. This was an increase of ~$1.4B over the then LCC of $5.1B. The level of funding in FY2011 and FY2012 that the ICRP said was needed did not happen. Increasing the funding so soon after the ICRP report was always a challenge, giving the timing and complexity of the Federal budget process, but it has been exacerbated by the current fiscal and political situation. The JWST launch has necessarily shifted to the future, for additional cost. 

There remains a lot to do before launch, but with an appropriate funding profile JWST could be launched later in the decade for less than the cost of Hubble. Hubble cost over $10B in current dollars - the public 2008 AAAC report (see page 45 in the 2007-2008 AAAC Annual Report at http://www.nsf.gov/mps/ast/aaac.jsp) gives numbers from NASA SMD as a result of a question from a Congressional Hearing on space science where I was asked about costs. The lifecycle cost

(LCC) of Hubble from inception through to the present day, including construction, operations beyond SM4 and mission servicing costs, but not shuttle launch costs, was $12.8B (FY2007 dollars). Since this LCC was in FY2007 dollars the cost in current dollars will be even higher. JWST will cost billions of dollars less than Hubble, yet it will carry out a science program of unprecedented scope with capabilities that far exceed Hubble. Releasing a cost to launch for JWST is important. Unfortunately, it is now tied up with the process leading to the FY2013 budget that will be released in Feb 2012, though a likely cost approaching $8B for a 2018 launch been mentioned informally in Congress.

If we lose JWST after more than $3.5B of investment in cutting-edge technology, as well as the repeated endorsement of the National Academy over two decades, we will face serious difficulty with justifying any future major space mission to Congress and OMB in any science area (planetary exploration in particular, because of the similar high mission costs). If we are to continue the remarkably productivity and iconic visibility of NASA's Great Observatories - Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer - we must continue with JWST. If we to have credibility with our partners, Canada and ESA, whose combined ~$1B investment and commitment is very large relative to their science budgets, we must continue with JWST. Even in such tough fiscal times it would be money well spent.  US leadership is at stake.


JWST - Impacts ("Talking Points")

The impacts of the cancellation of JWST are presented in two ways: as (2a) impact statements, and as (2b) statements of the importance of JWST. Both approaches can be used depending on the context of the discussion. Impact statements are often used because they send a message more forcefully.  However, there are other times where a more positive statement is the most useful.  Thus both are presented here.

(2a) Ten Impacts of Terminating JWST  

      1. Termination is inconsistent with the $3.5B that has been spent on JWST that has resulted in the delivery or fabrication of 75% of the flight hardware. Substantial progress is also being made on technical developments, management changes, improved oversight, and working relationships with the key aerospace contractors since the 2010 ICRP report.

      2. Termination of JWST, following on from the termination of the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider), would send the message that the US is relinquishing leadership in major science projects - it will be very difficult to start any other major science project or mission after canceling a highly-ranked project on which $3.5B has already been spent.

      3. Termination would reduce the productivity, strength and visibility worldwide of the US science program, not just astrophysics, and impact the preeminence of US science.

      4. Termination would result in no observatory-class mission to carry out broadly-based research when the current Great Observatories, Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer, reach end-of-life.

      5. Termination undercuts the Decadal Survey process since JWST was the top ranked program in the prior 2000 Astronomy Decadal Survey, and it is a cornerstone of the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey for future astrophysics research.

      6. Termination of JWST, as the natural successor to Hubble, would result in the loss, once Hubble fails, of a very large part of the remarkable public interest that astronomy has fostered in science and engineering.

      7. Termination would eliminate a major source of inspirational science education and outreach results, particularly for the interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) that comes from the high profile HST and JWST science results.

8. Termination would reduce US leadership in innovation, cutting-edge technology, and diminish the experienced work force necessary to tackle the Nation's high technology challenges in national security and space. Commercial spinoffs would also be reduced. The US is still uniquely capable of doing such an Observatory - no other nation could do JWST.

      9. Termination would further reduce US credibility as an international partner given the Canadian and European partnership on JWST and their substantial contributions to the program (several hundred million dollars to date, and expected to be about $1B by launch).

     10. Termination would eliminate the broadly-based research funding from the Great Observatory-class missions that plays a major role in undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate scientific education.  

(2b) Ten Reasons to do JWST 

1.  JWST is the future of astronomy and astrophysics.  Great Observatories like Hubble and JWST are unrivalled in their scientific productivity, breadth of capabilities, and their ability to respond quickly to new important scientific questions.

2. JWST is the only planned observatory-class mission with the ability to carry out broad-based research.

3. JWST was the top-ranked program in the prior 2000 Decadal Survey, and it is identified in the 2010 Decadal Survey as a foundational program for future astrophysics research.

4. JWST is the natural successor to Hubble, and when Hubble's mission ends, JWST will step in to fill void to continue the remarkable public interest in science, technology and in our origins.

5. JWST will continue Hubble¹s tradition of providing a major source of inspirational science education and outreach results, particularly for developing interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

6. JWST will continue to demonstrate the strength and visibility worldwide of the US science program, not just in astrophysics.

7. JWST demonstrates US credibility as an international partner given the Canadian and European partnership on JWST and their substantial contributions to the program.

8. JWST demonstrates US leadership in innovation, cutting-edge technology, and can enhance the work force necessary to tackle the Nation's high technology challenges in national security and space. No other nation could do JWST. The US is still uniquely capable of carrying out such a technologically-advanced space project.

9. JWST, like earlier Great Observatories, will provide broad-based research funding for undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate scientific education.

10. JWST is ready to move forward. Substantial progress has been made on technical developments, management changes and improved oversight, and working relationships with the key aerospace contractors.  Roughly 75% of all the hardware for JWST has been delivered or is in fabrication.  Revised and more realistic test programs for JWST are now in place. The $3.5B that has been spent on JWST has been used to develop and deliver a substantial fraction of the flight hardware.

JWST - Myths

(3) Ten JWST Myths

Typical myths regarding JWST that occur in conversation and print, with responses:

      1. Termination of JWST will allow other important NASA astronomy programs to move forward.

      Wrong. The funding disappears entirely from NASA. Astronomy loses ~$400M/year, SMD loses ~$400M/year, NASA loses ~$400M/year. From Astrophysics through SMD to the whole Agency, flexibility is lost for doing the big projects that only NASA and the US (for now) can do. 

      2. The NASA Astronomy portfolio should get away from flagship missions and focus on smaller missions that serve a broader segment of the community.

Wrong. This is inconsistent with the whole history of astronomy, and particularly the last 50 years of astronomical progress, that has shown, time and time again, that major telescopes with broad capabilities are the key to progress. Such telescopes can respond quickly to new scientific opportunities and move forward the frontiers of knowledge and discovery in a timely and cost-effective way. Missions like the Hubble Space Telescope serve thousand of users and serve the research activities of the broadest possible segment of the community - through guest observer programs, archival research, graduate student and post-doctoral programs, etc. Small missions provide complementary science but are not the heart and soul of progress. Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and Korean astronomers have all shown recently that they understand that the future is in major astronomical facilities. It is remarkable, and shortsighted, that some members of the most sophisticated and knowledgeable astronomy community on the planet might not grasp the opportunities offered by JWST.

      3. JWST is years away from launch with much that remains to be done, so terminating it now will save billions.

      True. But for a further $0.5B per year (less than 3% of NASA's total budget) over the next 7 years the US will get the most powerful Observatory ever conceived and will demonstrate again our scientific and competitive leadership day after day for 10 years once JWST is launched. And having spent $3.5B already of taxpayer funds that has led to 75% of the hardware being delivered or in fabrication, this seems like a wise and prudent additional investment, even in periods of fiscal challenges. Furthermore, the money that might be "saved" by termination would not be available to other science programs, and much of the $3.5B would also be wasted since the hardware is so special to JWST that it cannot be reused.

      4. Astronomy is an interesting basic science, but does not contribute to national goals such as technology advancement or competitiveness or education.

      Wrong.  The technologies being developed for JWST play an important role in a variety of areas from national security to aerospace and scientific research beyond astronomy. JWST will, like Hubble, be an ongoing symbol of American technological prowess. Hubble is arguably the most widely recognized beacon for science that exists today and has encouraged millions to think about science and its role in education and society, and to act upon their new knowledge and interest.  JWST will be a new beacon.  

      5. If the true costs of JWST were known in 2000 when it was first proposed, it would not have achieved its number one priority ranking.

      Wrong. The costing for all programs in space in that Decadal Survey was skewed dramatically by political factors at NASA at the highest levels. It was not possible to get consideration from NASA for programs that appeared to cost too much, regardless of size. The relative rankings were based on an assessment of the scientific importance of the facility. JWST was ranked first for a very good reason. Its scientific potential exceeds any other mission or project by a large factor. The true cost of space missions, small and large, were revealed in the middle of the last decade by efforts to be more open about costs within both the science community and within NASA (with support from OMB/OSTP and Congress).  JWST is now recognized to be more expensive than originally stated, but small missions have also been found to be substantially more expensive when realistic costing and cost-tracking are used (small missions that have doubled in cost by launch have been frequent).

      6. NASA has not addressed the mismanagement issue following last year's independent review.  No one was fired as a result of JWST problems.

      Wrong. There have been substantial management changes, with the JWST Project being removed from the Astrophysics Division with a new management team, to report directly to the NASA Associate Administrator and to the SMD Associate Administrator. Such actions, where a project in trouble is changed to have a direct line to the Administrator's Office are very rare, and also entail an effective demotion for the Astrophysics Director. Every top-level management person in the JWST program is new. The JWST Project Manager and the JWST Project Business Manager were replaced. The JWST Project has substantially more oversight at both Goddard (GSFC) and HQ. Efforts were made to improve the working relationship between NASA and Northrop Grumman, the Prime Contractor, and those relationships have improved greatly, especially with some management changes at Northrop Grumman. Shifting the JWST Project Manager at GSFC to a different project, and removing a large element of budgetary authority from a Division at HQ for the most visible science project in the agency, may not look like firing or demotion, but they are substantial actions in the Civil Service. While more direct actions might have been expected, the changes that have occurred have significantly improved program management.

      7. The light from distant objects JWST would observe has taken billions of years to get here, there is no urgency in building JWST now.

      True. We could wait another few billion years. But seriously, if the momentum is lost on this project and it is terminated, starting such a mission again would be politically impossible in the US.  Maybe China or India will do it in the next decade or two, or possibly Europe, or even a consortium of those nations with the US as a bit player. But what a comedown. From leadership of space science facilities to an also-ran. We stand on an important threshold in astronomy where major scientific advances can be made with the right telescope. JWST is that telescope. It will capitalize and leverage in a timely way from the substantial investment that the US has made over the past three decades in uniquely powerful space observatories (Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer). The momentum of research in many scientific areas will be lost if JWST is not completed and launched.

      8. There is no need to "be first" in every scientific area.  The science underlying JWST will be done eventually.

      This is not the case. Astronomy is a key science for public interest and involvement, as Hubble has demonstrated. For many of the most important questions about the universe - from when the first stars and galaxies were forming, to probing the existence of life on planets around distant stars in our galaxy, to the nature of our Universe and how it has built over time - JWST provides the only way to make progress. The science cannot be done with any existing or planned space telescope, or with ground-based telescopes or small missions. In space there are no other major facilities if JWST dies. It is nearly 20 years since the SSC was killed and US high-energy physics is still limited by that loss.

      9. NASA's main mission is human exploration, not science.

      Does this mean that NASA should ignore science? Of course not! The very first objective of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 is "(1) The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space."  Human exploration lies at the heart of NASA's mission, but to take the step that NASA focuses only on human exploration to the exclusion of space science ignores the dramatic visibility that NASA and the US have accrued from space science. Consider the relative returns of $200B spent on Space Shuttle, $100B on Space Station, and the roughly $10B on Hubble and ask whether that $10B was money well spent. That $10B for Hubble has arguably provided more visibility for the US than the others combined - for roughly 1/30th the cost!

10. The remaining risks in JWST are substantial and not well understood. It is better to terminate the program now.

Absolutely not true. The ICRP said that JWST had made "commendable and often excellent technical progress". This excellent technical progress has continued in 2011 since the ICRP report. The mirror delivery, planning for testing and integration, focus on deliverables and meeting milestones are all hallmarks of a project that is on a path to success. Of course there will be future challenges and problems. This is a unique, one-off project at the cutting edge of technology. It has never been done before. Such projects push the envelope of human capabilities. They are never easy and will have challenges and problems, but with adequate guts, determination, and contingency, JWST can be done. And JWST can be done for substantially less money than has been spent on Hubble.

Download PDFs of this memo 

JWST-Background (1 of 3)

JWST-Cancellation_Impacts (2 of 3)

JWST-Myths (3 of 3)