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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Feeding the Webb

Crunching budget numbers. It’s the decidedly unglamorous aspect of spaceflight, but it sets the parameters of what NASA can and can’t do.

Right now we’re on the verge of the release of the Fiscal Year 2013 budget for the space agency, and leading indicators are painting a not-so-pretty picture for a host of initiatives. One of the biggest hits looks like it will be taken by the Science Mission Directorate, the branch of NASA responsible for much of the exploration and research that perception-wise symbolizes the agency as an entity.
The Cassini probe represents just one of dozens of exploration projects created by NASA's SMD branch.

And at a time when funding for SMD is far from free-flowing, a further disruption impacts what little cash flow there is: cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope. Over $3 billion has already been spent on the troubled project, with billions more in the wings to complete the 14,000 pound behemoth. Launch of the telescope – which will eventually reside thousands of miles from Earth, compared to the Hubble Space Telescope’s relatively low 350-mile orbit  - may still be a half dozen years down the road.
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The James Webb Space Telescope fully deployed, a vision still years in the making.

Its detractors – and there are many - have been vocal. In a 2010 analysis of the state of the project, Nature: The International Weekly Journal of Science derisively referred to the Webb telescope’s voracious appetite for funding as “the telescope that ate astronomy.”

Of course, the discoveries that may emerge from the new space telescope based at its unique vantage point at the Lagrangian Point L2 – 930,000 miles from Earth - could make the huge expenditure seem like a worthwhile investment. But given its rising tab and its reliance on bold new technologies, the hoped-for returns are far from certainties in these belt-tightening times.