NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, launched Christmas Day last year, has returned to humanity belated gifts: richly colored images of stars, galaxies, space dust, gas clouds and other marvels of the universe thousands, or even millions, of light-years away.
The facts and figures in explanation of Webb’s new images are hard for most people to fathom. The first image released from the telescope, “the deepest infrared image of the universe yet,” offers a glimpse at a patch of space from approximately 4.6 billion years ago. It shows thousands of galaxies within a billion years after the Big Bang. Yet for all of the photo’s wonders, it barely scratches the surface of what the universe has to offer: Hold out just one grain of sand at arm’s length — that’s how much of space Webb captured in its first photo. The other three pictures are just as spectacular: galaxies tugging at one another, “cosmic cliffs” glittering with stars newly born, dying stars swirling out gas and dust in a final dance.
The Webb telescope is a crowd-pleasing success story now, but its cost and delays were often hard for U.S. government officials to stomach. First planned in 1996 as a follow-up to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb was delayed more than a half-dozen times over more than 20 years. It cost about $10 billion — more than five times NASA’s initial estimate in the early 2000s. Most space funding went to Webb, derided as “the telescope that ate astronomy” and “a black hole for taxpayer money.” Congress almost scrapped it entirely in 2011; NASA’s then-chief had to plead for government support to continue.
With the release of Webb’s first images, we can look back at the project not only as a success but also as a worthy investment. Given the project’s heavy use of resources, Congress appropriately tasked the Government Accountability Office in 2011 to issue annual reports on Webb’s cost and schedule to Congress’s Appropriations Committees. Given the high stakes of even a tiny technical mistake, NASA’s scientists, administrators, contractors and everyone else involved appropriately approached the monumental task with care and caution. There were missteps along the way — chiefly poor project management and cost estimation — that NASA should learn from in its future endeavors. But Webb ultimately shines millions of specks of bright light on the country’s scientific future, and other agencies pursuing ambitious projects should learn from its success.
It’s a remarkable achievement on all fronts: effective government, innovative technology, groundbreaking discovery. The James Webb Space Telescope is just getting started.