Today, 17 November 2011, the House of Representatives and the Senate finally agreed upon full funding approval for the James Webb Space Telescope. The requested amounted of funds for “Hubble 2.0″ was given to in full. A set $549.6 million for the first year (2012) of project operation with a cap set to $8 billion. The estimated cost through completion of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is around $8.7 billion, which is over the course of 6 years with a launch at some point in the year 2018.
James Webb Space Telescope
Why might you ask is this significant? Because unless we want to ensure our place in the world as science, technology and space leaders, we actually need to get our act in gear and fund projects like this. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “Why are we meddling around up there when we have things on Earth to worry about?” That is a completely fair question, until you look and see that when we “meddle around up there”, you realize things that significantly help us down here. First off, the JWST costs the same as 4 B2 bombers. The Al Qaeda spent half a million to become the arbiter of terror for America and yet it cost us $3.3 trillion in response… which is $7 million dollars for ever dollar Al Qaeda spent. Then you realize that $3.3 trillion is one fifth of the national debt. In the picture below you will see what represents $3.3 trillion, the JWST will cost just 8 of those little cubes… and the research we gain from it will help humanity so long as we exist on this planet, or the next.
$3.3 Trillion in this image, 1 small cube equals $1 billion
Here are some of the things we have in our lives simply by the fact we do research in space: microwave oven, MRI machine (magnetic resonance imagery), CAT scanner, robotics now used in nearly all factories, artificial or assisted limbs, GPS, any cellular device, weather forecasting, scratch resistant lenses, freeze-dried food, athletic shoes, cordless power tools, LEDs, any infrared technology, heart assisting devices, aircraft anti-icing technology, highways, radial tires, chemical detection (ex.C-O and smoke detectors), fire resistant technology, firefighting equipment, temper foam, water purification, solar energy, structural analysis software, powdered lubricants, food safety, barcodes, quartz clocks, Velcro, Teflon… and much much more.
I want you to divert back to that list above and tell yourself what of it you DON’T use in a single day of your life. Everything on that list was developed straight out of NASA and its affiliates. Even if it were just the MRI and CAT scanner on that list, the space program would still be worth it. Those devices alone have saved millions of lives that otherwise wouldn’t have been saved if it weren’t for space exploration. Think of what you would do without a microwave. Entire aisles at the grocery store would be gone completely, your method of cooking would be totally different and take longer. The design of every highway in America (and much of the world), is a direct spin-off of runway design to allow for safe landing of the space shuttle.
Most of these developments were not the planned outcome of our space exploration. That’s not how science works. The path that is taken to achieve great things is what leads to technology we never would have dreamed possible or applicable. You could argue the Apollo program alone brought us center stage in the world, not exclusively by the end result, but mainly by the ridiculous amounts of new technology we gained just by striving towards the moon.
Mirror size comparison of Hubble and James Webb
What can the James Webb Space Telescope do? I’ll give you some info. It is considered an infrared telescope. It is significantly larger, further away from Earth and very specialized… which means its resolution and sensitivity to light is absolutely incredible. It will see 10 times further than Hubble and 100 times more resolute. That is un-frickin-believable.
Notice how much further away the JWST orbits when compared to Hubble.
The JWST is capable of a very wide area of research but its primary goal is to observe the most distant objects in the universe, specifically what the universe looked like at the time of the big bang. How is this possible? Because it takes light time to travel to Earth, so if we look out to the edge of the universe 13.5 billion light years away, we will see what happened 13.5 billion years ago… which is roughly when the big bang took place. It will see the first galaxies that began forming in the universe, it will see the very first stars, the dispersion of energy, it will watch the first planets forming, black holes, and many more things.
The outcomes of a project like this can never in a million years be predicted. If they could, then there would be no need to go further with the project. Supporting space exploration is un-fathomably powerful in aiding the well-being of our lives here on Earth. Not only do we gain an understanding of the universe in which we live but it pushes our developments and expands the capabilities of the human race. The House and Senate’s acceptance to fund the James Webb Space Telescope is a small triumph that we all should embrace. The next step we need to push for is lunar bases and manned Mars missions. It might even be what is needed to push us out of bad economic times… it’s happened before, so it can happen again.