Here’s to galling congressional stupidity

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, July 07, 2011

Well, the United States House of Representatives has done some dumb things in its time, but yesterday it may have equaled its best. The House Appropriations Committee proposed killing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the centerpiece of NASA’s plans for exploring the universe over the coming decade.

September 2009 artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo credit: NASA
The JWST is planned to be an infrared telescope and the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, whose orbit will decay over the next few years until it burns up in our atmosphere. Originally slated for launch in 2014 and then 2017, the JWST was designed to answer many astronomical and cosmological questions, the most prominent of which was resolving how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang.

If Congress kills the project, it will have done so after spending hundreds of millions or even billions and getting to the point where JWST instruments exist, mirrors have been polished, and science directives have been altered and created, all in the name of moving forward with the scope. It’s like committing to build a high-speed rail system and building the track, only to say there’s no money to build a train.

Granted, costs have risen dramatically for the JWST project since initial budgets were approved. NASA has mismanaged the program, it would appear. But to cut off the entire project would be setting aside the entire coming phase of astronomy and cosmology in NASA’s core plan. Is that what we really want as Americans? To fully transform into the land of the uninformed, the consumers of too many calories and empty-headed entertainment as the rest of the world squarely adopts science and engineering and we watch them pass us by?

Today, the House votes on the measure, which is expected to be approved. Let’s hope it’s the opening salvo of a fight in which the science community will rise up and science funding will be restored in this country. We are already seeing the final space shuttle flight tomorrow. Are we also seeing the winding down and halting of American astronomy and cosmology research?

For more, read this morning’s New York Times story by Dennis Overbye.

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