As the pieces of the James Webb Space Telescope – the next-gen replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope – come together, there’s plenty of excitement in the astronomy community, but as Nature reports, there is plenty of anxiety as well. Webb, scheduled for launch in 2014, simply has to work.

James Webb 3

The massive observatory that promises to look back through the universe to the formation of the first galaxies has swelled to such expense that it has swallowed the budgets for other science instruments whole. If Webb fails, astronomical science could be set back a generation.

Webb’s price tag currently sits at about $5 billion, a bit of a cost overrun from the original $500 million to $1 billion cost estimated when Webb was conceived as Hubble’s successor almost two decades ago. The project keeps going back to the well, asking for an additional $95 million in 2009 and $20 million more this year. It has requested another $60 million for next year, and no one knows if that’s where the budgetary bleeding will end for 2011. Or for 2012 or 2013 for that matter.

via popsci