James Webb Space Telescope may get enough funding for launch

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but a major NASA project is years behind schedule, billions over budget, and at serious risk of cancellation. A new appropriations bill might give the James Webb Space Telescope enough money to get it off the ground by 2018, but only at the expense of other NASA research.

Remember how the James Webb Space Telescope cost about a billion dollars and launched back in 2009? No? Me neither. The budget and schedule of the fancy infrared telescope have spiraled out of control over the past decade, and the latest estimate puts the JWST launching in 2018 for just under $9 billion. Obviously, the people who are footing the bill (i.e. you and I) are not especially thrilled about this, and Congress has been threatening to cancel the entire project on our behalf.

It now appears as though an appropriations bill may allocate just enough funds to actually launch the JWST in six or seven years, largely by stealing money from other NASA projects. However, it's probably obvious to everyone by now that if the JWST's costs continue to increase exponentially, not even NASA's entire budget will be able to keep the telescope alive.

The problems that the JWST is having are a symptom of problems with NASA in general: poor management, lack of oversight, and a financial system that punishes projects for performing under-budget and rewards them for going over-budget without any real consequences or accountability. In some ways, JWST has gotten to be too big of a project to fail: if you've already invested five or six billion in the thing, it's hard to cut it off when you just need another billion or two to launch it.

Despite its flaws, we love NASA, and while it may ultimately make more sense for private industry to take over when it comes to actually getting stuff into space, nobody besides NASA is going to invest so heavily and so directly in raw science.

JWST, via Discovery

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