21 September 2011

Good news for Webb Space Telescope; Bad news for other scientists?

A full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope outside Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (Image credit: NASA)
Perhaps for this post I should temporarily rename the blog to Plus AND Minus Science. Allow me to explain …

Last week, the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee released its recommendations for FY2012 funding (pdf) for the various departments and agencies it oversees. Of note for us science types are details about NIST, NSF and, of course … [drumroll] … NASA! So how do the numbers look? Well, not great at first glance, although “not great” might be the best that could have been hoped for given the current economic climate. The biggest (proportional) hit is taken by NIST, which would see its 2012 funding cut by 9.3 percent compared to 2011 levels and by over 30 percent relative to the administration’s request. By comparison, the other agencies fair well: the recommendations would see NSF’s budget cut by 2.4 percent relative to 2011 and 13.7 percent below the 2012 request, while NASA’s would be lowered by 2.8 and 4.2 percent, respectively. So those are some of the minuses. But where do the pluses come in (other than suggesting that the cuts aren’t as bad as they could be)?

One big winner in the Senate subcommittee’s plan is NASA’s science division, and specifically, the Hubble-successor, James Webb SpaceTelescope (JWST). While most divisions within NASA would see cuts, funding for the science division, somewhat amazingly, would actually increase to $5.1 billion — 3.3 percent above 2011 levels and 1.7 percent higher than the 2012 request. Additionally, it would provide $530 million for JWST in 2012, or $175 million more than was requested, and it promotes continued funding in upcoming years to ensure it is ready for launch in 2018. This is great news for supporters of JWST (including me, albeit as a casual observer and fan), especially coming a couple months after the equivalent House subcommittee recommended terminating the project. I added my two cents at the time, suggesting that we’d already come too far in developing the project to stop now and that doing so would be a big setback for prominently stated research goals.
Comparing JWST with Hubble. (Image Credit: NASA)

While the scientific and technical merits of the Webb Telescope don’t seem to have been targets for criticism, the project has been under fire because of repeated cost overruns and delays with deployment. Originally projected to cost just $1.6 billion and launch this year, both the budget estimate and targeted launch date have been revised on several occasions. Last summer, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the Chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, called for an independent review (pdf) of the project. The review concluded that the cost for JWST was likely to top out at over $6 billion and would not be ready to launch until 2015. NASA itself then amended its target launch date to 2018. And, according to the Senate subcommittee’s explanation of its recommendations (see p. 91 of the document), the space agency provided it with a revised total cost estimate of $8.7 billion for the project (including at least $3 billion that has already been spent on it). Nonetheless, noting that JWST’s problems have been administrative, not scientific or technical, in origin and citing its potential to “rewrite the physics books,” the subcommittee, with long-time supporter Mikulski at the helm, wholeheartedly supported the project with their budget recommendations.

Great news! Right? Yes, and no perhaps. As others have noted, not everyone in the astronomy community is thrilled to see JWST gobbling up so much money. Some scientists have objected, arguing that it is siphoning money from and jeopardizing other worthy astronomical research efforts. There are, after all, four other units that receive funding through NASA’s science division — earth science, planetary science, astrophysics and heliophysics — and money spent on JWST is potentially money not spent on other projects. Considering the Senate’s $530 million allocation for JWST is $175 million higher than the administration requested, but the $5.1 billion recommendation for the science division overall is just $83.2 million higher than  requested, that amounts to $91.8 million pulled from other units.

Regardless of scientists’ competing views regarding the Senate’s proposed funding for JWST — good or bad — it is worth keeping in mind that it could be worse. The same House appropriations recommendation (pdf) that calls for JWST to be killed also calls for NASA’s total budget to be cut by $1.6 billion relative to 2011 funding (compared to a cut of $509 million in the Senate bill). And the science division budget also suffers more in House version, with funding set at $4.5 billion. So, at the very least, the Senate version would seem the better of two perhaps less-than-ideal options.

The eventual outcome will, in all likelihood of course, not be one or the other of the House or Senate versions. As Bad Astronomer Phil Plait reminds us, “The Senate must vote on [their subcommittee's appropriations bill], and then it has to be reconciled with the House bill, and then the President has to sign it. There’s still a very long way to go here.”

But, at least for now, the James Webb Space Telescope still has life. To me, there’s more plus in that than minus.

(P.S. If you find any inaccuracies in my numbers, please let me know.)

More ...

Check out this "movie trailer" for JWST (and much more about the project) from NASA:

Other recent interesting space-y stories:

- The out-of-service UARS (for Upper Atmosphere Research) satellite is expected to come crashing back down to Earth, likely on Friday, but it's uncertain where.
- Take a video tour of the asteroid Vesta, which was recently surveyed by NASA's Dawn spacecraft.
- Would "sexy" names (think cool military names for planes and missiles) help draw interest for NASA missions?

One last note, on the awesomeness scale, I’m rating JWST:

*Update* Read my November 21 update about JWST.

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