Saturday, August 13, 2011
There's so many things packed up in this clip. For a start, the House isn't trying to cut the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) because "we don't have the money" or to save money or for any budgetary reason what-so-ever. The House is trying to cut JWST because the Government Accountability Office reported that NASA, and the contractor, have been mismanaging this program. They reported this three different times and required reports on what NASA was going to do about it - NASA didn't provide those reports. The House even said that the reason they were looking to cut JWST was to send a message that ignoring oversight will not be tolerated.
Does that mean the JWST isn't important? No.. no-one is saying that. Everyone agrees that JWST is important and that it will give results of significant scientific discoveries should it ever be completed and launched.. but when will that be? Within a two week period - after the House suggested cutting the budget - the program managers said 2020 or 2018 - neither answer was given in writing. Both answers were contingent upon an increase in their budget.. there's a word we use for declining to increase the budget of mismanaged projects: smart.
So is that the end of JWST? In the minds of NASA-can-do-no-wrong advocates, yes. They immediately declare that you're just not throwing enough money at the problem. It goes something like this: Oh, Hubble was massively overbudget and even broken when it launched. If we hadn't thrown more money at the problem we wouldn't even know about [insert discovery of cosmic significance here].
Meanwhile, the cosmologists are going around saying that the JWST is "essentially complete" or that "we've already built it". This isn't just the sulk cost fallacy, they actually think the JWST is ready and Congress is pulling the rug out from under them. This isn't the case at all, and not even NASA is making this claim. I've been suggesting that, if this were true, people who really want to see JWST fly should be calling for a firm fixed price contract - where the contractor covers the cost overruns, and NASA has less opportunity to screw things up - which has been proven time and time again to result in projects that are completed on-time and under budget.
Failing to mention any of this, Tyson then goes off into one of his standard rants. Oh, we've stopped dreaming. We don't look up. We've turned inwards. Can you imagine why? Hint: it has something to do with NASA mismanagement.
Back in the 1960s people dreamed of going to the Moon. Guess what? NASA went to the Moon. Was NASA not grossly mismanaged back then too? Of course they were, but they were given the mandate to "waste anything but time" and that is one thing government does well: waste.
What did people dream about in the 1970s? Space settlement. These dreams became plans, that wasn't the problem. All the engineering analysis at the time indicated that NASA could do it, so what happened? The plans called for cheap access to space and that requires the opposite of government: efficiency.
Instead, NASA became a government agency focused on "international cooperation", with first the Shuttle-Mir program and later the International Space Station, and while I'm sure there was plenty of people out there dreaming about more cooperation between nations, it had little to do with looking up.