The road to the launch pad for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, long billed as the successor to Hubble, has been a rocky one.
Last year a blue-ribbon review panel found that the effort to build JWST was rife with bad planning, poor cost control, and too much optimism about the technical challenges it faced. The project is so seriously over budget and behind schedule, the report concludes, that only a quick infusion of cash — an extra $500 million over the next two years — would prevent the launch date from slipping to 2018.
But that hasn't happened, and although the project has yet to announce anything officially, last April NASA administrator Charles Bolden testified that the delay to 2018 is looking more and more "reasonable."
Now there's new worry that this huge space observatory's 21-foot (6½-m) primary mirror will never see starlight at all.
Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee unveiled its spending plan for the coming fiscal year. Rather than adding the needed funds to speed JWST along, the cost-conscious Congress is looking to make deep cuts in the space agency's budget. It proposes to provide NASA with $16.8 billion in fiscal 2012 — $1.6 billion less than in fiscal 2011 and $1.9 billion below President Obama’s request. Worse, the House committee specifically calls for the termination of the JWST project.
It's a shocking and unexpected turn for the next step after Hubble, which is due to cease operations later this decade. "In these austere budget times, a cut to the request was widely expected, but not to this extent," notes Marcia Smith, a veteran space-policy analyst. The Committee is looking to make such deep reductions, in part, because Congress favors having NASA develop a new heavy-lift Space Launch System capable of sending crews beyond Earth orbit. The fiscal 2012 plan contains $1.9 billion to keep that program rolling.
Meanwhile, construction on the telescope continues, and some technical milestones have been reached. On June 30th, the project announced that technicians had finished polishing all of the telescope's beryllium mirrors. More than 75% of the JWST hardware is either in production or done and undergoing testing, NASA claims.
Although astronomers are looking forward to the rich discoveries that the Webb telescope would surely make — and have been designing the next generation of ground-based instruments to complement it — they're also aware that its total price tag, now estimated at $6.2 to $6.8 billion, will continue to suck up federal dollars that NASA could use to fund an entire slate of promising astronomical spacecraft.
There's been no official reaction from NASA or the Obama administration concerning the proposed budget cuts, but this is just one round in a grueling battle over the federal budget in general. Moreover, NASA has a powerful ally in Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who has steadfastly supported her state's Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the JWST effort. But clearly the project will be a lightning rod for discussing what's going right and wrong at the space agency in the months ahead.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS), the organization of US professional astronomers, issued a statement this afternoon protesting the House Appropriations Committee's plan to cancel the Webb Telescope, calling it "the centerpiece of U.S. space astronomy for the next two decades."