21 November 2011

How the Webb Space Telescope got its groove ... er ... funding, back

 After several months of uncertainty, the future of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) appears to be secure, at least for another year. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate voted last Thursday to pass an appropriations bill (pdf) that, among its many other allocations, includes $530 million in funding for JWST for fiscal year 2012.

An artist's rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope
(image credit: NASA)
Since construction of the massive instrument — slated to succeed and surpass Hubble — began in 2008, it has been beset by delays and cost overruns that have earned it many critics. While NASA originally proposed a $1.6 billion price tag, that number has continued to climb and the most recent estimate is closer to $8.7 billion. Similarly, the launch date, originally set for 2011, has been pushed back several times and now is scheduled for 2018.

An independent review (pdf) released in late 2010 concluded that the project’s problems had been caused primarily by administrative failures and chronic underfunding from the beginning rather than technical issues. Whatever the cause, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies — a part of the House Appropriations Committee — had had enough. In July, the subcommittee proposed cutting $1.6 billion from NASA’s overall budget compared to 2011, and explicitly called for the JWST project to be terminated in its FY2012 draft spending bill. This prompted a significant outcry from many (though not all) scientists who see JWST as imperative to achieving priority research goals. Then, in September, the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, headed by long-time Webb supporter Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., released its own FY2012 draft spending bill (pdf) in which JWST faired far better.

As far as NASA is concerned, the Senate version largely won out in the compromise legislation. The total agency budget checks in at $17.8 billion, much closer to the Senate recommendation of $17.9 billion than the House’s $16.8 billion figure, and the $530 million allotted for JWST is the full amount recommended by the Senate.

Overall, the bill provides about $5.1 billion for NASA’s science division (again, in line with the Senate recommendation), of which JWST is a part. Significantly, it also includes new oversight features intended to address the issues of mismanagement identified by the JWST independent review. Other inclusions in the bill are $1.2 billion for continued development of the Orion crew vehicle, $1.86 billion for a heavy launch vehicle lift system designed to ferry loads beyond low-Earth orbit, and a $406 million allotment to help fund the development of commercial spaceflight options.

As I mentioned when I last wrote about JWST, some scientists have not been pleased with the project’s impact on funding for other parts of NASA’s science division, and they likely won’t have changed their minds with last week’s news. But for those involved in JWST and for others looking forward to its potential discoveries (including yours truly, as I’ve also previously mentioned), the bill’s passage certainly comes as a relief. Hopefully, the telescope’s management and funding issues don’t resurface, and this relief lasts through 2018.

For more information and links, see my two previous posts on JWST here (for EARTH Magazine) and here.

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