JWST will be capable of imaging an incredible array of targets. Peering across the Universe – and thus back in time – it will observe the formation of the first galaxies, only 250 million years after the Big Bang. It will be able to detect the presence of planets around other stars and search for water in their atmosphere (a step toward finding potential homes for life). It will even give us more detailed views of the outer planets in our own solar system. But there is another side to JWST. . .
When NASA began designing JWST in 1997, mission planners expected it to cost $500 million and launch in 2007. Today, JWST is estimated to cost $8.8 billion and launch in 2018.
What happened? As development progressed, technical issues arose, costs grew, and schedules slipped. Many also believe that the 1997 estimates – made in an era when the motto of NASA’s Administrator was “faster, better, cheaper” – were unrealistic.
Regardless of cause, the growing costs needed to be offset, inflicting JWST’s second great cost: its destruction of other scientific research. In the last five years, NASA’s astrophysics division has launched only a handful of small-scale telescopes; over the next 10 years NASA has only three new astrophysics missions planned (all are European-led missions). As one astrophysicist put it in a 2005 article, James Webb “is now devouring space-based astronomy.”
Some of the cost growth of JWST is likely due to mismanagement, but much is the result of unforeseeable technical hurdles that come with the task. With groundbreaking science, comes increased complexity and ambitious technologies, which pose challenges that are difficult to anticipate and expensive to overcome. In business, these unexpected costs define an area known as the “bleeding edge.” Many groundbreaking scientific projects faced such hurdles. Both the Curiosity Rover and the Hubble Space Telescope famously suffered delays and significant growth in costs.
The increasing complexity, and thus cost, of scientific discovery holds true even outside of “rocket science.” The Tevatron, formerly the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, cost $290 million in 1983 (2013 dollars) to design and build, while the Large Hadron Collider, necessary to further test aspects of our physical models, is estimated to cost $9 billion. Even in fields that do not rely on single, massive projects to advance science, research complexity is increasing. Before 1920, single authorship of scientific papers was nearly universal; by 1980, the vast majority of papers had two or more authors, with some having tens or even hundreds. More complex topics require more specialized, collaborating scientists.
Intuitively, the trend of increasing research complexity is to be expected. Humans are curious and ambitious; we will inevitably discover first those concepts that are simpler to observe. Once the low-hanging fruit is picked we must construct more and more complex ladders to move further up the tree. Gravity is more straightforward to prove by experimentation than quantum mechanics (except when Black Holes are involved). The ground-based telescope used by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s to discover the redshift of distant galaxies (and thus, universal expansion) was simpler than his modern, orbiting namesake that imaged those galaxies in detail.
We should not be alarmed by this natural growth in research complexity, but we must be aware of its implications. How can we advocate for ever more expensive research programs that will not yield results for a decade or more? How do aspiring scientists enter disciplines in which the most productive research occurs far above their pay grade? Is it possible to have a cross-cutting scientists like Galileo, Curie, or Feynman in such specialized research?
While I have no solution, I do believe it is essential to better explain to non-scientists both the wonder and challenge great complexity brings. JWST is a perfect example. The mission must overcome many difficult and unexpected hurdles to eventually produce scientific results. Yet, by overcoming these hurdles it becomes an even greater symbol of human legacy and potential. While the destination is still paramount in scientific research, perhaps we could better appreciate the journey.