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Cutting the cost of coffee and a space telescope

By Hamish Johnston at the AAS meeting in Seattle

Times are tough, and cutting costs was on the agenda for the two speakers who opened the 217th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here in Seattle.

On the podium first was AAS president Debra Elmegreen, who had something to say about the cost of coffee at the Seattle Convention Center – which is astronomical. Indeed, catering is the single largest expense for the meeting, and free coffee adds over one hundred dollars per delegate. Yikes, that’s a lot of money considering that more than 10% of the 2700 folks here are undergraduates.

So no more free coffee breaks between sessions – with the exception of ticketed coffee in the exhibition – and not a groan in the audience. If only the bankers would take the same attitude towards their bonuses!

The next speaker was the Nobel laureate John Mather, who spoke about progress towards launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2015. The big news is that construction of the telescope’s 18 primary mirrors is well under way and they should all be completed by this summer. “It’s huge,” said Mather, referring to the telescope, which is 6.5 m across, compared with Hubble at 2.4 m.

The next big step, according to Mather, is to place the entire optical system into a giant chamber at the Johnson Space Center to simulate the rigours of space.

Mather took a few questions, which is when the thorny issue of money came up. A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that cost overruns on the James Webb were going to sap funds from other NASA missions. Not surprisingly, Mather was adamant that the extra funds were needed, and expensive projects such as the Johnson testing must go ahead.

I’m afraid that at this point there was some muttering in the audience – and the person next to me said under his breath that the James Webb was consuming far too much of NASA’s astrophysics budget.

Let’s hope Mather and colleagues can keep costs under control for the sake of my neighbour’s blood pressure.

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