Lawrence M. Krauss - Blinded and Blindsided

Theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss has something to say about the dangers of defunding the James Webb Space Telescope:

Almost 20 years ago Congress cancelled what was then the most ambitious scientific project ever launched, the Superconducting Super Collider. Well on the way to completion and after several billion dollars had been spent, cost over-runs and management issues meant that the project, the world’s largest particle accelerator which would have resolved questions ranging from the origin of all mass to the nature of fundamental forces, gave a democratic congress an excuse to kill the program during hard economic times.

A similar situation is arising now and is threatening to ground the nearly completed James Webb Space Telescope. Coming in at $1.6 Billion over its recently updated cost estimate of approximately $5 Billion, this successor to the phenomenally successful Hubble Space Telescope will peer back to the period of ‘first light’, when the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe giving new insights into exotica from the first giant black holes, to the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that dominate the dynamics of the universe. After billions have been spent, the House Appropriations Committee has recommended terminating the project because it is over budget and has had management issues.

The cancellation of the JWST would likely herald the beginning of the end of US leadership in Space Science, just as the cancellation of the SSC moved the center of gravity in particle physics to Europe. The JWST was designed to take off where the Hubble Space telescope—which has revolutionized astronomy—has ended, by taking us to the very beginnings of visible structure in the Universe. It was meant to be the centerpiece of astronomy for the next two decades, and without it, the tantalizing hints that Hubble has been able to glean about our beginnings will remain just that for perhaps a generation.

Indeed, if it were simply a matter of the US taking another step back away from the head of the pack in Science, the proposed cancellation of the JWST would merely be a local tragedy. But the cancellation of such a major international science project, and one for which much of the incredibly sophisticated and expensive infrastructure has already been completed, means it is unlikely that a comparable opportunity will arise elsewhere in the foreseeable future.

The JWST cancellation is part of an overall proposed reduction in support for NASA, which comes on the heels of the end of the Shuttle program, and indeed of the immediate future of human space exploration in this country. Yet when one compares the total cost of the JWST, likely to be around $7 Billion (spent over a period of longer than a decade) with the $200 billion dollar price tag of the Space Shuttle program, and the $100 billion dollar price tag of the International Space Station, and the $ 3 Billion/yr devoted to human launch vehicle development, it seems sad that the item with the greatest potential to push forward the frontiers of knowledge, and the cheapest of the bunch, is being cut.

But the potential loss of the JWST is far greater than just science. It is hard to think of a single NASA project, exceeding even the Mars Rovers, that has captured the imagination of the public, and in particular children, than the images of the cosmos provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. Whenever I lecture and show a Hubble photo I can be guaranteed to provoke excitement and awe. One can only imagine what inspirations the next generation will miss without another comparable eye in the sky.

The Universe is more remarkable than our human imagination alone could have ever guessed, which is why science is more exciting than science fiction. Every time we open a new window on the Universe we are surprised, and each time we learn something new and fundamental about the cosmos we learn something new and exciting about our own origins and our connections to the universe.

It is thus both tragic and frustrated that this tempting and vital new probe of the cosmos may soon be both blindsided and blinded as an unfortunately easy but misplaced target during the current congressional budget cutting frenzy.