NASA technicians lift the James Webb Telescope, using a crane, and move it inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The scientific successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built. Credits: NASA/Desiree Stover

A lot of astronomers, scientists, and engineers got a nice Christmas present when the James Webb Space Telescope was launched successfully from the French Guiana Ariane rocket site on December 25. A lot could still go wrong with this instrument, which has cost about US$8 billion so far—a lot more than the $500 million that was originally planned back in 1996. But if you ask whether the telescope was worth it, right away you get into imponderables that are hard to quantify.

With the possible exception of high-energy physics, astronomy has to be today’s most costly pure-science endeavour. Looking at the stars used to be the purview of professional astrologers, who kings and priests of many religions relied on to forecast auspicious times for major undertakings such as battles. Ironically, at least up to the Middle Ages, astrology was viewed as a very practical endeavour, much as weather forecasting is viewed today. Royal personages didn’t pay astrologers to study the stars just for the heck of it—they wanted results. And in the nature of prediction, they got results too—usually wrong ones, but just enough right guesses to keep the astrologers going.

With the Scientific Revolution, astrology gradually gave way to astronomy, the scientific study of the stars for their own sake, so to speak. Again ironically, one of the founders of modern science, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wanted to free what we now know as science from its tendency toward idle speculation and make it more practical “for the relief of man’s estate.”

Anyone who uses modern engineered technology of any form has realized Bacon’s ambition to employ scientific knowledge for practical purposes, and Bacon’s dream of relieving man’s estate has come to pass in ways that Bacon could not have imagined.

The improvement he might be most impressed with is the extended lifespan most of us enjoy compared to Bacon’s day, and that is due in no small part to modern medical technology, although things like sanitary water systems and sewers, electric grids, and power machinery have all contributed to extending our lifespans as well.

But the realm of pure knowledge for its own sake has also benefited in countless ways from technology, notably computer technology, which was developed initially for terribly practical reasons having to do with World War II. Once developed by mathematicians, scientists, and yes, engineers, computers turned out to have applications in both science and engineering, neither of which could do without them today. In the last few decades, computer software has not only relieved engineers of much tedious grungework with slide rules, tables, and graphs, it has rendered superfluous many kinds of jobs that engineers formerly did.

As technology companies will tell you, they have not yet managed to replace all their engineers with software, but some of them would like to. Because, as a wise manager once told me, engineers are carried on balance sheets as overhead, like the light bill, and accountants are always on the lookout for ways to lower overhead.

From the point of view of gross national product, the James Webb Space Telescope is all overhead. Yes, a lot of engineering firms got contracts to build components of it. Yes, a lot of engineers held jobs largely because of it. So in that respect, it generated economic activity. But unlike giant tech firms like Google, Apple, or Facebook, NASA’s piddly little $8 billion or so spent on the telescope is a small blip on the economic radar. Yet the public pays a huge amount of attention to it. Why?

Not because of the engineering involved, although that engineering must be the peak of the art in terms of aerospace design—hundreds of square feet of precision reflector mirrors and sheets of thin heat reflectors deployed in the unforgiving vacuum of space where you can’t call up the serviceman if something goes wrong, and a coordination among a lot of disparate parts and organizations that makes an automotive company look simple.

No, for most people, the appeal of the telescope isn’t the engineering of it, necessary as that was. It’s what the thing may be able to do, which is to look farther and more carefully into the distant past than ever before, and maybe, just maybe, find evidence of living beings outside of our own planet.

With its enhanced infrared imaging capability, the James Webb Space Telescope can potentially image exoplanets beyond our solar system, and who knows what that will tell us? If we knew, it wouldn’t be research. In an age for which the ideas of God and life beyond the grave are losing their appeal, people need something to hope for. And for many, astronomy seems to be a kind of substitute religion, an asking of the question, “What else is out there?” in a materialistic way that modern science is more than happy to do, in exchange for a few billion dollars here and there.

Feeling wonder at seeing the stars on a cold, clear night was what led the ancient poet, who may have been King David himself, to write in Psalm 8,

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; 
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour.

That poet did not have the benefit of a telescope to see how many more stars there were than he could see with the unaided eye. But he saw enough to see evidence of God’s handiwork in them, and how small humanity seems in comparison to the vastness of the universe.

Far from the village-atheist view that religion resisted the demotion of man from the centre of the universe that the Copernican revolution brought, the Jews at least recognized that, physically speaking, humanity is just a tiny speck on the astronomical map.

What makes humanity worthwhile isn’t our size, or our engineering of things like the James Webb Space Telescope, or even the knowledge that we may discover with it. It’s that we are creatures—created ones—of God, who loved us enough to “make us a little lower than the angels,” and to come in human form to Earth about 2000 years ago, on a day we traditionally reckon as December 25.

Republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...