House Spending Panel Wants to Kill Webb Telescope

A draft bill before a spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives would eliminate funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a flagship instrument that NASA wants to launch later this decade. If the provision ends up getting approved by Congress as part of the 2012 appropriation for NASA, it would sink the space agency's biggest astronomy project and dash the hopes of astronomers who see the telescope as a portal into a new era of discoveries about the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope was conceived in the late 1990s as a successor to Hubble, and was supposed to launch in 2014. But last year, an external review of the project, led by John Casani, found serious problems in the project's management. It reported that the telescope, previously estimated to cost $5.1 billion, would now cost between $6.2 billion and $6.8 billion, and would not be ready until 2018 at the earliest. In order to make a 2018 launch date, the report said, NASA would have to come up with $200 million in each year, FY 2011 and 2012—which agency officials said was impossible.

How much Congress allocates for the telescope in its 2012 budget will be key in determining when—and if—the project can be completed. Until this morning, termination of the project did not seem like a serious possibility, given that NASA has already spent $3 billion on it. But that's exactly what the 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill, released today by the House Appropriations Committee, threatens to do. A press release accompanying the draft legislation notes that JWST is "billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management." The panel's subcommittee is expected to approve the draft tomorrow at a mark-up session.

The bill provides an overall budget of $16.8 billion for NASA, which is $1.6 billion below this year's level and $1.9 billion below the president's request. That includes $3.65 billion for space exploration and $4.5 billion for science, which is $431 million below this year's level. The bill would also prohibit NASA or the Office of Science and Technology Policy from engaging in bilateral activities with China unless authorized by Congress. That language would extend a ban that the subcommittee's chair, Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), included in the final 2011 spending bill.

The bill is the first step in a long negotiation amongst lawmakers to decide the final budget for NASA and other agencies. News of the House bill will no doubt send panicked supporters of JWST to the doorstep of Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate appropriations panel that oversees NASA's budget and a powerful backer of the telescope, which would be based in her home state.