James Webb Space Telescope Must Live!

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope. The JWST will be the coolest space telescope ever. Obviously, since it will represent the new and improved space telescope. The JWST will be larger, orbit further than HST, and have better optics and cameras. No telling what cool stuff JWST will be able to send us.

If it gets finished, that is. Republicans, and a few Democrats, want to kill funding the JWST. I hate stuff like this. For a number of reasons.

Chief among the reasons is the complaints people have about Science and Technology and our country’s investment in Science and Technology. “Too expensive!” “Why do we need a Space Program!” “Why is NASA always over-budget?”

This is simply ignorance speaking. We’ve lost more money, literally lost billions of dollars in Iraq. I’m not talking the cost of the war.  I mean they drove a pallet of American bills off a C-130 transport plane and lost like $6 billion dollars. No one knows where it went. 

jwst-660x527The Hubble Space Telescope was originally budgeted at about $3-1/2 billion dollars. 10 years after its due date, and at a cost of $11 billion dollars, the HST finally made it to orbit. And, the HST produced the coolest images ever seen by Humankind. (GeekDad.com)

Same thing happened with the Space Shuttle. Took a long time to get space-borne, and over-budget. But why?

Many moons ago, I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture presented by a NASA scientist, an engineer, really. I wish I could remember his name. I can’t, but that should not diminish the message. He related many facets of the budgeting of space-related projects which I found amazing.

The Space Shuttle program, for example, was decades in the making. Engineers must plan nearly every detail in advance. Many, many details, for essentially two reasons. First, so that a budget can be constructed for Congress to approve. The second reason dovetails with the first reason, the budget is based on a baseline foundation of technology. Each Space Shuttle contains numerous computers. These computers do not represent the pinnacle of human achievement. At the time of this lecture, the Space Shuttles were operating using the equivalent of 486-based computers. You could buy Pentium IIIs, Pentium IVs, and Xeon processor computers at Walmart that were more powerful.

I was stunned. Why could they not use current technology? Because NASA needed to use tried and true technology. They needed chips that had been tested, and evaluated against numerous conditions that are not found in your home. Many other systems are also predicated upon tried-and-tested technology. Therefore, a baseline level of technology is established. So, technology from 3, 4, or 5 years ago may, in fact, be used in current space and weapons systems simply because scientists and engineers are very familiar with the properties of that technology, and the materials comprising that technology.

For programs that persist over time, like the Space Shuttle, like the Hubble, and like the JWST, and like any military weapons program, developers are obligated to establish a baseline technology. When contracts are written, they are further limited by rules that do not allow them to account for changes in the market costs for necessary materials. Developers cannot say, “We need to budget an extra 25% for costs over the next 10 years for this program.” As I understand government accounting and financial rules, this is against the law. Or, at least against protocol.

Government contractors, and government agencies themselves, like NASA, chronically find themselves over-budget because they are simply not allowed to budget for the true cost of a program.

Even when bridges or roads are constructed cost overruns are incurred. The price of cement goes up due to increased demand in China. The price of road fabrics go up due to the increase in demand of oil globally. Therefore, as the price of the materials that go into the making of the road go up, the price of the road goes past its budget.

Same with nearly any government program that means building something. Doesn’t matter if that something is an F-22, a Space Shuttle, or a space telescope. Budgeting for the cost of materials 5-10 years away is nearly impossible. Yet, the military and NASA are frequently asked to make such calculations, as if they can see the future.

The other complaint that is often voiced also hints at ignorance. “Privatize NASA. Sell it make them turn a profit!”

If a profit could be made from doing this, someone would have done it already. Also, we cannot have just anyone putting stuff in orbit around earth. The skies above us are littered with enough space junk already. These efforts generally do not make money. They are always operated at a loss. The European Space Agency, the Indian Space Agency, the Chinese Space Agency, and the Russian Space Agency are all government-run programs. These programs are expensive to operate, maintain, and simply do operate under normal supply-and-demand economics. 

geoeyeCompanies like GeoEye can turn a profit, but even that is extremely hard. GeoEye sells numerous products that people want, that government want. GeoEye collects images of the earth that people know how to use, can put immediately to use. 

Few people are talented enough or educated enough to put Hubble imagery to use. Yes, the pictures are pretty. If you ask someone what they are looking at, though, would they really be able to explain the nature of the object? Maybe, if they were cool enough of a person to have a Hubble image, they could possibly tell you about the image.

StonehengeOne of the benefits of a government is public and private partnerships that increase the knowledge of human society. Our GPS constellation of satellites is a good example. The United States has collectively worked with other countries to create the International Space Station. Other countries, however, will continue to develop a Space Program policy. Actually, the Chinese are pushing well into this, with plans to put people back on the Moon.

Many Americans need to wake up and smell the Shuttle exhaust. Technology, innovation, entrepreneurialism, dreams, ambitions, and the constant pushing of the envelop is what makes this country unique, not sitting back and waiting for people to do things for us, or without us.

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