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James Webb Space Telescope Further Funded by Congress

Photo: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Pat Izzo, License: N/A, Created: 2011:10:14 15:12:16

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Pat Izzo

A life-sized model of the James Webb Space Telescope visited Baltimore recently, as seen here installed outside the Maryland Science Center.


The House and Senate on Nov. 17 passed legislation that lays out fiscal year 2012 funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), including the full $529.6 million requested to ensure a 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. The announcement comes at the end of a heated public debate that lasted nearly four months.

The funding keeps the Webb, unofficially dubbed Hubble 2.0, safe for now, but is by no means a long-term guarantee. (The bill must also still be signed into law by President Obama.)

Much of the development of the Webb is based in Maryland at the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, which will assume all operations responsibilities upon launch (“Seeing Stars,” Feature, July 20). STScI currently employs some 400 staffers, 125 of which are working on the Webb, as are about 400 civil servants and contractors at GSFC.

A 2010 Independent Comprehensive Review Panel (ICRP), requested by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS), found that the project had been riddled with mismanagement and poor budget planning. The House announced its initial CJS spending bill on July 6, which cut funding to the Webb entirely, spawning a largely online grassroots movement to save the telescope.

After the ICRP report was released, the Webb became its own division within NASA, all senior management was replaced, and a new, more sensible budget and deadline were crafted, with a launch date of 2018 and a final life-cycle cost, including operations and data archiving, of $8.7 billion. The appropriations minibus places an $8 billion ceiling on development costs and requires regular examinations from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has had NASA on its “high risk” list for more than 20 years.

“I support the James Webb Space Telescope, but my support is not unconditional,” Mikulski said in a Nov. 17 press release. “I am holding NASA and its contractors to their revised estimates.  We cannot accept any further overruns.” The telescope must be awarded the full requested funding each year going forward in order to launch on time and within budget.

“We get to fight another year,” STScI director Matt Mountain says in a phone interview. “To meet the 2018 launch date within the $8 billion cap there has to be consistent funding . . . . Certainly we need no more crises.”

The campaign to save the Webb divided the astronomy community over concerns that the project, if renewed, would eat up funds for important but lower profile projects, particularly in the planetary science field.

“First of all, we’ve got to recognize that a lot of sacrifices have to be made across the community to support us,” Mountain says. “I think we need to acknowledge that and recognize that other communities are not going to get what they wanted.”

Much of Webb’s construction is already complete; the most complex portion left to be built is the sunshield. The rest of the work left is largely integrating and testing the many pieces of the massive scope, which Mountain describes as “an appropriately hard road ahead.

“I think the way to look at this is that JWST has had a reprieve,” he continues. “It’s not out of the woods, because it has to deliver now. . . . Given that we want to spend $8 billion to get it launched, increased scrutiny is to be expected.”

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