Sunday, October 16, 2011

Webb Telescope Pulled Back From the Brink—For Now

      In July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA’s most ambitious project. The vote triggered panic among U.S. astrophysicists who see the telescope as key to understanding the infant universe and among other researchers who feared that NASA would cannibalize their programs to complete Webb.
      Last week, a Senate panel threw a lifeline to Webb by allocating $530 million for the project out of a total of $17.9 billion for NASA in FY 2012. That’s $156 million more than the Administration’s request for JWST. Meanwhile, Senate appropriators left other science programs at NASA practically intact, allocating $5.1 billion overall for NASA science. Although the markup is only one step toward a final NASA budget—it must be approved by the full Senate and then reconciled with the House appropriation—JWST supporters see it as an encouraging sign.
      “We are delighted,” says Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who organized a petition to rescue the project. He says the telescope might not have survived without the political backing of Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), a long-standing supporter of JWST and chair of the Senate appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies.
      The House voted to cancel JWST largely because of cost overruns documented in an independent assessment of the project released in 2010. That assessment found that the telescope, previously estimated to cost $5.1 billion, would cost between $6.2 billion and $6.8 billion. In a new plan submitted to the White House, NASA has come up with an overall price tag of $8.7 billion for the telescope, with a launch date of 2018.
      In August, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. told an advisory council that JWST was one of the agency’s top three priorities, along with commercial rockets to supply the international space station and a heavy-lift rocket to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. Planetary scientists and other NASA-funded researchers feared that the agency might fund JWST by shifting money out of programs within the Science Mission Directorate. Instead, the Senate panel’s markup takes money for Webb from outside NASA Science, cutting $388 million from the Administration’s request of $1.024 billion for space technology, and cutting $350 million from the $850 million request for the development of commercial crew vehicles.
     Planetary scientists say they are not out of the woods yet. “Congress could still wreak havoc in space science by slashing other budgets [within science] to fund a restored JWST at $530 million,” says Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute in Tempe, Arizona. “The threat of JWST to planetary science and other areas is not over.”
     Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland— which would operate JWST—says the Senate’s markup should reassure Sykes and others. By increasing NASA’s science budget to 11% above the 2009 level of $4.5 billion, the bill “is clearly signaling that JWST is important and is not killing science,” he says.
      At last week’s markup, Mikulski noted that her panel’s support for the telescope came with conditions. “We have added stringent language, limiting development costs,”and insisted on “a report from NASA senior
management, ensuring that NASA has gotten its act together in managing the telescope,”she said.



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