NASA budget blunder
My thanks and admiration to Ron Cowen for writing about NASA’s “culture of deception” in his recent article on the James Webb Space Telescope mission (“Star cents,” SN: 4/9/11, p. 22). If the astronomy community (and Congress) had decided years ago that spending $7 billion or $8 billion on JWST would be our best use of funds, then I would be happy to live with that. Instead, we have swallowed the bait of a series of low-ball estimates, and are now held hostage by a project that is “too big to cancel.”
Patrick Broos, University Park, Pa.

Another critical consideration for the JWST is that this unique object, costing at least $6.5 billion, will be placed on a launch vehicle. What vehicle will be used to launch it, and what is the calculated probability of a launch success according to knowledgeable people other than at NASA or the company building the vehicle?
Clinton Brooks, Glen Mills, Pa.

The telescope will be launched from
Arianespace’s launch complex located near Kourou, French Guiana. The launch vehicle is an Ariane 5 ECA with a cryogenic upper stage, provided by the European Space Agency. ESA will also provide a payload adapter, which serves as the mechanical and electrical interface between JWST and the launch vehicle. At press time, ESA hadn’t responded to a question about the probable success of the launch and deployment. — Ron Cowen

Fire ants’ lasting impression
Regarding “U.S. is biggest exporter of fire ants” (SN: 3/26/11, p. 15): I encountered these nasty critters in 1962 while training Laotian troops. I had rested my hand on the top of a rotten fence post colonized by the ants. I had to admire their organization. Several dozen (felt like thousands) stealthily moved onto my arm before they began to sting.
John Fanning, North Port, Fla.

Solar memories
Regarding “Spots suggest sun’s doldrums likely to continue” (SN: 3/26/11, p. 5): From 1956 to 1961, I and Lorne Galloway represented General Electric’s Mobile Radio Communication business in Oregon. We were very much aware of an upsurge in what we called “skip interference,” particularly for radio communication in the 25 to 50 megahertz band. I recall installing a radio base station on a mountain in central Oregon, and the first signal we heard was from southern California. This long-distance skip for systems that should normally cover only a radius of 30 to 50 miles was caused by increased sunspot activity. So it is interesting to see that, as mentioned in your article, we were then in the middle of the highest sunspot activity in recorded history!
Phil Dellwo, Lynchburg, Va.