failure of imagination part 2






I made a big stink about the death of the US space shuttle initiative.

And maybe I did so because in some obtuse way I sensed it as simply being the first domino to start falling in the overall failure of imagination in the face of ROI-based government (and skewed public opinion) decision making.


The next domino falling?



NASA is fighting to save its next-generation space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope. Politicians want to end the project. Blast it off the face of the earth (as it may be).

The headline: NASA fights to save the James Webb space telescope from the axe.

Astronomers shocked by House of Representatives’ move to scrap deep-space observatory after costs soar to $6.5bn.




Now that is an incendiary headline playing to a variety of nerves nationally. But … don’t get me started on how Media reports things.


The bottom line is that a Congress appropriations committee has decided that it has had enough of the project’s escalating costs and moved to cancel the project.

(oh … and coincidentally in all the budget deficit/spending debates on The Hill the decision cuts $1.9bn from NASA’s 2012 budget)


Congress called the project an “extraneous, duplicative and unnecessary program.”




I know Congress is in the hyperbole business but even that extreme a comment comes as a shock to me.

The scariest aspect of this cut is that it is truly a cut. The money taken from this project is removed from the NASA budget entirely. It will not go into other missions or research grants.





In case you missed the story.



USA Today: A terse statement, released by the Republican-dominated committee, said that the project “is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management”. The decision still has to be approved by the full appropriations committee, the House and the Senate. Nevertheless, analysts say the telescope now faces a struggle to survive.






Am I going to argue that the project could use better management?




Am I going to argue with the thought the project should have remained within budget?





Couple of reasons for this.



  1. Getting a budget through government is a sham. Initially it is all about getting the project approved … not the budget.  People who know how to play the game focus on “what budget does it take to get a really good idea approved to move forward?” (Unfortunately this also works conversely for really bad ideas … but that’s another post for another day).


This is where government could use a Business Management 101 lesson.

Businesses learned really early on that lowballing a budget was a really really bad idea.  Tell the truth upfront.  That’s the lesson.  Good bad ugly or beautiful it is what it is. So my first issue is that the original budget was a fake budget.  A best guess at best.






2.    Budgeting for an innovative idea is impossible.  If it is truly innovative then it is truly new (hence its innovative tag). How do you competently budget for something you haven’t even seen or done before? You cannot.  And no matter how much the ROI crazy world demands it you are simply plucking numbers out of the air to appease people who are asking, “you need to give me a number.” So when someone says “you are so far over your initial budget it is a farce” someone at NASA should be shoving it right back at them with “you are pandering to the public with that statement (and shame on you) and you are not judging the project properly (judge us not on initial budget but rather the value of the output to date).”



On a project like this focusing on the original budget is ludicrous. But it certainly makes for good press when everyone is talking about cutting government expenses.





This James Webb project.


Scheduled for a 2016 launch the James Webb is intended to replace the Hubble Space Telescope and would orbit in deep space millions of miles from Earth and give us additional insights into the universe. Its observations would answer major questions about the structure of the universe (as well as any sci-fi imaginary aspects you would like to attach to the practical perspective – because realistically the sci-fi “who and what is out there” is almost as important as all the scientific universe learning stuff).



The cost of the Webb observatory has significantly increased from initial estimate of $1.6bn to more than $6.5bn. Unfortunately this means that budgets for other space research projects have been slashed, leading the journal Nature to describe the James Webb as “the telescope that ate astronomy”.



Not surprisingly, the move to scrap the telescope, which has been underconstruction since 2004 has horrified astronomers (I just had to use that … written by someone else). They are horrified because the James Webb was intended to be the centerpiece of space research for the next two decades (hence the reason funds were shifted from other projects to fund this one … I just thought I would point that out to everyone). Its telescope is something like 3x the size of Hubble’s and because it orbits outside Earth’s atmosphere it would be able to make unprecedented observations. This would allow it to capture images and gain learning from a time when the first stars and galaxies lit up the universe.



Ok ladies & gentlemen.


We have been here before.



The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 as NASA’s flagship observatory and was the largest to be flown in space at that time. In the early stages of the project, Hubble had technical delays and budget issues.  Troubles didn’t end after launch and we even had to send a manned rescue mission to fix Hubble (at a huge expense I may add). However. Twenty years later it is difficult to debate the impact Hubble has had on science & innovations & learning (not to mention capturing the imagination of millions of children who will inevitably be guiding the future of the world).



Skip ahead to 2011.



We are on the brink of killing NASA’s successor to Hubble (same reasons as above).




Bottom line is that Hubble cost several billion dollars more than initially planned, and its launch was delayed by almost a decade yet we do not hear many people debating whether those funds and time & effort were well spent.



I believe the most important question we should be asking is can we afford not to find out what this next NASA project will discover?

The things we cannot even foresee at this stage?


It is very difficult to see who will be better off if this project dies. A NASA employee says it very well:

–        For scientists, its loss will slow progress in understanding the physics that governs the universe at a time when huge advances are within our reach.

–        Engineers, who have successfully completed many aspects of the observatory, will see more than a decade of work go to waste as well as we miss out on the future innovations needed to overcome the next obstacle the project will face.

–        The public will lose the opportunity to marvel once again at the amazing place that is our universe: the thousands of planets that populate our own galaxy, the places where new suns are born, the first galaxies at the dawn of time. We’ll all miss out on the opportunity to inspire a new generation of scientists by simply being capable, as a species, of launching this fantastic telescope into space and seeing the things it will see.

The only one that benefits is not really a person.  It is just the budget.  So simplistically this is about dollars and ROI.  Yup.  Imagination/discovery versus dollars/cents.



My point of view?



I think cost cutting (using ROI or budgets as an excuse) doesn’t come much more shortsighted than this. It is proof that we have lost sight of what is important to us … what makes America who America is.


It is about the success of imagination.

The success of discovery.

The success of ‘what if.’



Cutting this initiative would simply be a vivid demonstration of our failure of imagination.

And the failure in understanding imagination and discovery is what leads us to greater heights (albeit unforeseen heights).


Maybe I could have said it simpler.



Cutting this project simply equals failure.

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Written by Bruce