Letter from an unabashed JWST apologist

This took a bit to write, but it is now written and sent to my representative in the House. It’s pretty long, I hope she doesn’t hate me for it. 😉 (Also, I hope that I don’t have to send it to my Senators!) Let me know if I’ve got anything wrong–I tried to be careful about my information, but this is the internet, after all.

Dear Representative                ,

I write to you with the hope of encouraging you to stand in support of one of the most important astronomical projects of this and recent decades, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As you know, a subcommittee in the House of Representatives recently introduced—and today approved—a draft budget that would reduce NASA’s funding and zero out the JWST entirely.

While it is true that the JWST faces delays and cost overruns, these issues should not lead us to give up on the project. The Webb’s predecessor, Hubble Space Telescope, faced similar problems in its development, costing several times the original projected amount by its launch date in 1990, the launch itself being delayed by some seven years between project-related delays that pushed it to late 1986 and the Challenger disaster that delayed it even further.

But we did not give up on the Hubble, and it has paid us back for our persistence, lending to discoveries that have changed our understanding of the universe and solidified its position as an immense success. Among other things, the Hubble captured the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in excellent detail; gave us evidence that supermassive black holes lie at the centers of many galaxies; recorded the first visible-light image of a planet orbiting another star; refined our calculation of the Hubble constant, thus providing our most precise measurement of the age of the universe; and perhaps most surprisingly, gave us strong evidence that the expansion of the universe, far from slowing down, is accelerating, indicating the existence of dark energy—a force whose nature remains as yet a tantalizing and unanswered question.

Helix Nebula, HST, 2003

And the Hubble’s contributions have not been restricted to the esoteric sphere of astrophysicists. Through mediums such as the Space Telescope Science Institute, many of the most stunning images and discoveries of the Hubble have been released to the general public over the course of the telescope’s operation. These images are captivating, inspiring, iconic. Think of the “Eye of God,” the Helix Nebula, or of the Eagle Nebula’s so-called “Pillars of Creation.” They convey in the most direct way, not just the knowledge, but the beauty there is to be found in science.

Eagle Nebula, HST, 1995

The James Webb Space Telescope stands in line to continue and to expand the work of the Hubble, as Hubble—after more than 20 years—finally nears the end of its life. JWST has been identified as a top priority in both the 2000 and the 2010 decadal survey produced by the National Academy of Sciences. Equipped to observe primarily in infrared light, with a mirror more than two and a half times the size of the Hubble’s, and orbiting much farther from Earth, it will allow us to study objects both farther and fainter than the Hubble can observe, as well as viewing objects whose surrounding clouds of dust obscure them from Hubble’s view. The JWST will give us a clearer view of stars as they form, of the very early universe and the formation of the first galaxies, of planets beyond our solar system (even to the point of determining the chemical composition of their atmospheres), and likely, as with the Hubble’s evidence for dark energy, of phenomena at which we cannot yet even guess. And like the Hubble, it has the potential to inspire a new generation of potential scientists and researchers.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be central to astronomical research in the coming years and possibly decades. True, it is over cost and faces delays, but we can’t expect NASA to predict with great accuracy the full time and funding needed to design and build a piece of equipment the likes of which has never been built before, which is what Hubble was in its day and JWST is in ours. Even now, as noted in the American Astronomical Society’s statement of July 7, the major engineering hurdles have been overcome. The equipment is being built. It was recently announced that the mirrors are ready fully polished. We have come so far, so much progress has already been made, and the potential gains are so great that it would be a terrible waste to give up now.

Please, I implore you: Support science. Support NASA. Support the quest to understand our cosmos. Don’t let this project die before it has had the chance to truly live; please do not defund the James Webb Space Telescope.

I apologize for the length of this letter; and I thank you deeply for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

                                          
Denver, Colorado

* Note: My sources for this letter are primarily hubblesite.org, for information on Hubble’s discoveries and the anticipated projects for JWST, and Wikipedia†, for information on HST’s delays and cost overruns. Plus the mentioned AAS statement.

† I know, shame on me. I did check the cost at launch on hubblesite.org, and that disagreed with the Wiki figure, so I did not say that cost at launch was more than five times the projected cost (as Wikipedia indicates). So I’m not all bad for using Wikipedia a little bit, right?

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