From the Chief Advocate
JWST was always intended to be the anti-Hubble. Conceived in the shadow of the high-profile mirror flaw, the so-called “next-generation space telescope” was to be more on time, more affordable, and more competently executed. No one wanted to relive the costly delays, bad press, and endless jokes at NASA’s expense.
Yet the ambitious JWST project still suffered from many of the ills that beset its predecessor. It was a decade delayed and seriously over budget. Like Hubble, JWST narrowly survived the budget ax of a displeased Congress.
This all played into a near-pathology of some observers who worried that — like Hubble — JWST would be inevitably beset by technical problems. But this time — unlike Hubble — JWST would be unreachable by astronauts; repairs were impossible. And therefore the project was a scientific and public relations disaster waiting to drag down the space agency.
This didn’t happen. By all accounts, JWST has appeared to function flawlessly since launch. The telescope survived its complex and risky unfolding sequence and is now steadily working through months of delicate mirror alignments.
This success stems from a key lesson learned from the Hubble debacle: that the consequences of going to Congress, hat in hand, to ask for more money are far less than the consequences of public failure.
In the early 1980s, when Hubble was already years behind schedule, NASA decided to save money and avoid further congressional ire by skipping expensive ground-based tests — tests that could have identified the mirror flaw prior to launch. The costs to fix the spherical aberration and the resulting PR hit were far higher than just doing the tests in the first place.
NASA faced a similar decision in 2017 when it became clear that JWST was once again falling behind schedule of its planned 2018 launch. This time, instead of skimping on tests and frantically working to launch on time, NASA made the hard call to delay the project by another two years at the cost of an additional $800 million.
Congress, which since 2012 wrote into law that JWST was not to exceed $8 billion — agreed to pay more. There were some unflattering news stories but little of it resonated with the broader public. JWST’s success, on the other hand, receives glowing coverage and front-page placement. Compare Google Search volumes over the past 10 years: there were small blips of interest during the 2011 cancellation attempt and basically nothing around the 2018 delay, but there was a massive 20x increase in interest in the month of its successful launch.
JWST historian Robert Smith, the guest on this month’s Space Policy Edition podcast, argues that coalitions that support megaprojects like JWST have to advocate over and over and over again. But once a coalition is built, it can be quite powerful; their projects can endure any number of development challenges. Abject failure is another matter: it was only after the Hubble was fixed that development began on what became the JWST. The future is built on a foundation of success, and that’s almost always worth the (political) cost.
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Space Policy Highlights
NASA released its plan to de-orbit the ISS in 2031, with substantial cost savings (spacepolicyonline.com) "A month after formally announcing plans to extend operations of the International Space Station to 2030, NASA is making clear that is the end of the road. A new update to its ISS transition plan spells out how that end will play out, with the orbit gradually lowered until the football-field size facility reenters and any surviving pieces fall into the Pacific Ocean in January 2031. After that, NASA will buy whatever human spaceflight services it needs in low Earth orbit from companies expected to be operating their own space stations by then."
Report finds that the U.S. accounts for more than half of global space spending (arstechnica.com) "Nations around the world spent a total of $92 billion on the "space sector" in 2021, the market intelligence firm Euroconsult reports. This represents an 8 percent increase in spending from the year 2020 ... civilian space activities accounted for $53 billion of the spending, and defense activities $39 billion. However, the report noted that the proportion of defense spending is increasing."
NASA's JPL appoints its first female director (jpl.nasa.gov) "Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been appointed director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and vice president of Caltech. Leshin will formally assume her position on May 16, 2022, succeeding Michael Watkins, who retired in August 2021...The distinguished geochemist and space scientist brings more than 20 years of leadership experience in academic and government service to JPL."
Dr. Leshin has also served on The Planetary Society's board of directors. We look forward to working with her to support further exploration of the solar system.
Retiring Senate spending chiefs go for broke (politico.com) "Retiring Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) are laying 35 years of experience working together on the line, hoping to cut a massive deal on government spending to avoid the string of stopgap funding patches and shutdown threats that have plagued Congress for months. At the moment, few are particularly upbeat about their prospects."
NASA's budget for 2022 remains in limbo as part of these ongoing negotiations.
Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition
Robert Smith shares the story of how the astronomical community decided upon the JWST as the follow-up to the Hubble Space Telescope, the coalition politics required for mega-projects like Hubble and JWST, and how that dynamic shapes modern science. Dr. Smith holds a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. He is a professor at the University of Alberta. His book, The Space Telescope: A Study of NASA, Science, Technology, and Politics, was released in 1989.