Hope, With 'Stringent' Orders, for NASA's Webb Telescope

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives cancelled the over-budget and behind-schedule James Webb Space Telescope, sinking the hearts of NASA officials and U.S. astronomers. Today, the U.S. Senate threw the project a lifeline, reviving hopes that the $6.5 billion instrument will eventually be completed and launched.

Marking up NASA's budget this afternoon, the Senate appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies allocated $530 million for the Webb telescope out of a total NASA budget of $17.9 billion, which is $509 million less than the 2011 level. The Senate panel's support for Webb does not come as a surprise to anyone. The chairperson of the panel, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), has long been a champion of the project, which is based in her state, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

In remarks delivered at the markup today, Mikulski noted that although her panel wanted to continue funding for the telescope, it also wanted NASA to be more accountable in executing the project. "We have added stringent language, limiting development costs" and insisted on "a report from NASA senior management, ensuring that the NASA has gotten its act together in managing the telescope," she said.

The allocation in today's markup does not automatically mean that the Webb telescope has been rescued. The markup will now go to the full appropriations committee for approval before going to the Senate floor for a vote. The approved bill will then have to be reconciled with the House version, which, NASA hopes, will result in a final appropriation that keeps the telescope alive.