Look up And Wonder
20th Jul. 2011 :: Is the James Webb Space Telescope Worth It

Since my last update on the current status of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), I've seen a few critical comments about the cost. One Tweet (that I won't link to) suggested that at $4billion spent, the James Webb must now die.

Now, there is no doubt that $4billion is a lot of money in the real world by just about any comparison; but the trouble is that you can't look at it in isolation. Federal and governmental budgets aren't like personal or household budgets; you can't make a comparison to say, skipping a meal out or two to save for a new flat screen TV. You have to look at $4billion in depth, you need experienced people to comb through budgets like that, you need oversight and you need analysis. You really need to understand what it is that you're getting for your money...

A critical Twitter post contributes nothing to such a debate other than a somewhat mindless personal assertion.

Lets look at a few facts. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier costs about $4.5billion to build[1], the United States has 10, so that's $45billion. Due to a design flaw, ships of this class have inherent lists to starboard when under certain combat loads that exceed the capability of their list control systems. This is a pretty fundamental flaw - their list control systems are simply not adequate for the job.

So, are these carriers worth $4.5billion each? No is the answer, they are not. Not if you look at them as the flawed machines that they are. Flawed machines that will achieve nothing but occasional death and destruction. And where is the benefit to humanity as a whole? But lets put it another way - is the defence of the United States, and her allies by means of global naval and air power supremacy, pretty much anywhere in the world within 48 hours worth $45billion? Well, yes it probably is. That's just $150 per man, woman and child in the United States for a guarantee as strong as you could possibly ask for, that the continental United States will not come under air or naval attack from any foreign government or army while these carriers are operational. Safety and security for $150 each.

So by comparison is the JWST worth the $3billion[2] that the US tax payer has so far shelled out? In fact, lets assume that it costs $6billion at completion - is the JWST worth $6billion[3] to the US tax payer? Well, no - not if you look at it as just a telescope - a machine for looking at stuff that is far away.

But, like the Nimitz - that's not the correct way to look at the JWST, because that's not what the James Webb is...

The JWST is our eye on the Universe, it's our eye on the past, and it's our key to further understanding the world in which we live. It's fascination, it's wonder, it's an interest in what's out there. It's the pathway to the advancement of science and astronomy for 20 years. It will drive adults and our children alike to open their eyes just a little bit wider.

It's facts and data for thousands of excited students and scientists who will grow, and build careers on the results. It's food for philosophers, it's a tantalising trail of evidence for astro-biologists. It's the Big Bang, it's early galaxy formation, it's exoplanets, it's planetary formation. It could be the answer to the really big question; "Is there life out there?". It's beautiful images and posters for our bedroom walls. It's pride, it's achievement and it's the courage to do things because they are hard.

And what is the cost? The cost of all this? $20. $20 per man woman and child in the United States[4]. How is it possible to receive all that for $20, and to call it "not worth it"?

[1] Wikipedia: Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier.
[2] $3billion at time of writing - with $1billion contributed by international partners.
[3] By means of comparison to another scientific project the LHC has total budget of us$9billion.
[4] In 2009 the US Census quoted a population of 307,006,550, so in fact the cost is less than $20 each ($19.54).

James Webb Space Telescope concept :: NASA

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I am an amateur astronomer; I am interested in science, innovation, astronomy and general musing about philosophies of life, the universe and our place in it.

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