American Leadership in Astrophysics at Risk

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On Nov. 10, the long-awaited Casani report on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was released, and with it came the realization that the future of U.S. leadership in space-based astrophysics is in jeopardy.

The report, the result of an investigative panel called for by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, highlights management and oversight missteps by NASA in its execution of JWST. In total, the mission will cost at least $1.4 billion more than its last adjusted cost of $5.1 billion, and its launch date will slip another year, to September 2015 at the earliest. Obviously, such mismanagement needs to be fixed and, as Senator Mikulski said in a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, “[T]he management and budgetary reforms you detail must have a greater sense of urgency and frugality.”

Thankfully, the initial response by the agency appears urgent and, one hopes, frugal. A new division, reporting directly to the administrator and headed by a veteran project manager, will be focused full-time on JWST. A similar structure will be introduced at Goddard Space Flight Center, which leads the JWST mission. Change has come to the project, and I am hopeful that NASA will absorb the message of this report — big projects require the best management and oversight to ensure success — and get JWST back on track now.

Yet U.S. leadership in astrophysics is at risk despite these initial responses. Each decade, the U.S. astronomy and astrophysics community, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, produces a decadal survey in which a recommended portfolio of prioritized projects is laid out. The power of this survey is that it truly represents a community consensus. The previous decadal survey for 2000-2010, titled “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium,” called out JWST as the highest-priority space-based mission for the decade. The new survey, Astro2010’s “New Worlds New Horizons” report, was released in August. It calls for a balanced portfolio of ground-based telescopes and space-based missions, from small to large, while leveraging concepts in creative ways to maximize scientific return for dollars invested.

For space, this is clearest in the recommendation for the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), which is a combination of different community-proposed telescopes and goals into a joint top-ranked mission. Also of critical importance for space-based research is the recommendation for stronger support for the Explorer program, which enables design, development and launching of smaller, focused, more rapid missions that help train the next generation of space scientists. At the same time, the space-based recommendations call for critical technology development for the next generation of missions, as well as continued support and augmentation of the core research program, including research and analysis support. Due to the JWST cost growth, this nuanced set of community recommendations, geared toward maximizing scientific discovery in priority areas, is under threat before the ink is even dry on the report.

Of course cost growth in government projects is not unique to NASA. Many agencies and departments struggle with the cumbersome bid process, which awards contracts to the lowest bidder when many projects have large uncertainties in cost calculation at early stages. The sad truth is that this process essentially guarantees cost growth will result, regardless of whether proper oversight and management controls are utilized — or not, as appears to be the case for JWST. But what is especially problematic with the JWST cost growth is its magnitude, which has outstripped the resources of the division that spawned it. It has become an agency-level problem.

How can we avoid such overruns in the future? The Astro2010 report represents a big step in this direction, because for the first time the decadal committee worked within budget guidelines provided by the agencies and had independent cost, risk and technical assessments of each highly ranked project; the result is a realistic budget (at the 70 percent confidence level) for each recommended project. Accurate budgets coupled with proper management and oversight will go a long way toward ensuring the timely completion of future missions.

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has four divisions (Earth science, heliophysics, planetary science and astrophysics), of which astrophysics is the third largest with an annual budget of just over $1 billion. Earth science and planetary science are larger, with Earth science seeing significant growth as it addresses presidential priorities in the coming years. With its budget, NASA’s astrophysics division is managing a diverse suite of missions studying the universe at all wavelengths, developing new missions (including JWST) and supporting a community of researchers who process and analyze the data gathered by the missions and develop new concepts and methodologies for future scientific research. Because of commitments to ongoing development activities, the division quite frankly does not have the ability to provide the approximately $250 million that the JWST problem demands; if it did, it would bleed the entire Astrophysics program completely dry.

What’s at stake here are not just the missions the division is already pursuing (limited already due to the cost of JWST) but the next decade’s priority activities and U.S. leadership in astrophysics. It is the U.S. that launched the Hubble Space Telescope (despite cost growth and technical challenges). It is the U.S. that launched the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It is the U.S. that launched the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. These “great observatories,” planned in the 1980s and earlier and only fully realized in the last decade, have revolutionized our understanding of the universe and ensured U.S. leadership in astronomy and astrophysics. The JWST problems are not technical, they are fiscal, and they are not small, they are large. Because they are large and because they are management driven, NASA must solve them at the highest levels and with agency-level funding.

We all need to recognize that JWST and the initial $5 billion investment cannot be allowed to fail, since so much of future astrophysics research was built upon the foundation it was to provide — as the Casani report concludes, “JWST will play a key role in understanding how and when the first galaxies were born, characterizing the planets that are now being discovered around nearby stars, in providing further insights into the nature of the dark energy and dark matter, and into how stars and planetary systems are born. There is no easy path to understanding such complex scientific questions. To do these things at the level needed to advance scientific understanding requires a complex telescope with truly unique capabilities. JWST is that telescope.”

At the same time, the rest of the NASA astrophysics program can’t be abandoned in its wake.

Always one to look for a silver lining, I am guardedly optimistic that the Casani report has provided the necessary wake-up call, and that the reorganization of management and oversight for JWST will put us on track once again toward realizing the tremendously exciting discoveries that await us as we push toward new horizons and new worlds over the next decade and beyond.

 

Debra Meloy Elmegreen is president of the American Astronomical Society and the Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College.