Recent Developments on James Webb Space Telescope

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Publication date: 
29 September 2011
Number: 
120

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Yesterday a key House appropriator  chided the Obama Administration for not specifying what budget reductions it  was willing to make to other programs to offset the cost of the James Webb  Space Telescope (JWST).  Frank Wolf  (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice,  Science and Related Agencies wrote to Office of Management and Budget Director  Jacob Lew that:

“While acknowledging that  substantial cuts will be necessary, the Administration has so far failed to  identify a single specific proposal to offset the increase in JWST spending  above the levels contained in the President's fiscal year 2012 request. Either  no offsets have been proposed because JWST really isn't a top priority, or the  Administration is hoping that remaining silent will force Congress to act  unilaterally and thereby take sole ownership of the cuts necessitated by the  Administration's actions. No matter which explanation is correct, continuing  silence is neither fair nor acceptable to the Congress and to members of the  scientific community who will be deeply impacted by the ultimate outcome of the  JWST debate.”

Wolf’s subcommittee included  no funding for the telescope in its version of the FY 2012 bill funding  NASA.  The July 20 committee report accompanying  its bill explained:

“The James Webb Space  Telescope (JWST) Independent Comprehensive Review Panel revealed chronic and  deeply rooted management problems in the JWST project.  These issues led to the project cost being  underestimated by as much as $1,400,000,000 relative to the most recent  baseline, and the budget could continue to rise depending on the final launch  date determination. Although JWST is a particularly serious example,  significant cost overruns are commonplace at NASA, and the Committee believes  that the underlying causes will never be fully addressed if the Congress does  not establish clear consequences for failing to meet budget and schedule  expectations. The Committee recommendation provides no funding for JWST in  fiscal year 2012.  The Committee believes  that this step will ultimately benefit NASA by setting a cost discipline  example for other projects and by relieving the enormous pressure that JWST was  placing on NASA’s ability to pursue other science missions.”

A summary of the Review Panel’s  47-page report, released in mid-November 2010, and additional background  information is available in last year’s FYI #116.

The Senate Appropriations  Committee took a different approach.  The  Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Barbara  Mikulski (D-MD), provided more funding than the Administration requested for  the telescope in its version of the FY 2012 funding bill.  The September 15 Senate report stated:

“The Committee strongly  supports completion of the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST]. JWST will be 100  times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope and is poised to rewrite  the physics books. Last year, the Committee asked for an independent assessment  of JWST. That assessment, led by Dr. John Casani, found that while JWST is  technically sound, NASA has never requested adequate resources to fund its  development. As with many other projects, budget optimism led to massive  ongoing cost overruns because the project did not have adequate reserves or contingency  to address the kinds of technical problems that are expected to arise in a  complex, cutting edge project. Without funds, the only other way to deal with  problems is to allow the schedule to slip. That slip, in turn, makes the  project cost even more, when accounting for the technical costs as well as the  cost of maintaining a pool of highly skilled technical labor through the  completion of the project.

“In response to the Casani  report, NASA has submitted a new baseline for JWST with an overall life cycle  cost of $8,700,000,000.  NASA has assured  the Committee that this new baseline includes adequate reserves to achieve a  2018 launch without further cost overruns. The Committee intends to hold NASA  and its contractors to that commitment, and the bill caps the overall  development cost for JWST at $8,000,000,000.”

About two weeks later  Chairman Wolf sent the following September 28 letter to OMB Director Lew,  copied to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Office of Science and  Technology Policy Director John Holdren:

“Dear Director Lew:

As you are no doubt aware,  the House Appropriations Committee's reported fiscal year 2012 bill for  Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies contains a proposal to  eliminate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) due to significant management  and budgetary problems. Since the unveiling of that bill, the Administration  and its supporters in the science community have repeatedly expressed  opposition to the House's position. Over the past few months, I have been told  many times that JWST's scientific potential must be preserved and that the  project is no longer just an astrophysics priority, but a NASA-wide priority.

“In spite of this high level  of apparent concern about JWST's status, however, the Administration has been  very slow to provide Congress with the information needed to support continued  JWST funding. For example, the rebaselining of JWST's budget and schedule was  complete for months before it was shared with the Congress, which denied my  Subcommittee the opportunity to assess the replan prior to making a fiscal year  2012 funding recommendation for the program.

“With the submission of the  baseline, we finally now know that JWST is expected to cost $8.7 billion. That  represents an increase of $2.2 billion above the amount calculated by an  independent review of the program last year, $3.6 billion above the prior NASA  baseline and more than $7 billion above the amount estimated by the decadal  survey that first designated JWST as a priority. We also know that implementing  this replan without a budget amendment will require substantial cuts in other  NASA programs in fiscal year 2012 and the outyears. This fact has not been lost  on heliophysics, Earth science and planetary science researchers, who have  already begun mobilizing to prevent their own programs from falling victim to  JWST's overruns.

“While acknowledging that  substantial cuts will be necessary, the Administration has so far failed to  identify a single specific proposal to offset the increase in JWST spending  above the levels contained in the President's fiscal year 2012 request. Either  no offsets have been proposed because JWST really isn't a top priority, or the  Administration is hoping that remaining silent will force Congress to act  unilaterally and thereby take sole ownership of the cuts necessitated by the  Administration's actions. No matter which explanation is correct, continuing  silence is neither fair nor acceptable to the Congress and to members of the  scientific community who will be deeply impacted by the ultimate outcome of the  JWST debate.

“In the coming weeks, the  House and Senate will sit down to negotiate final appropriations bills for  fiscal year 2012, and the appropriate level of funding for JWST will be one of  the most significant issues considered. For us to make a truly informed  decision that takes into account both the value of JWST and the value of  opportunities that may be precluded by the JWST replan, we must have the offset  information. If such information is not provided by the time that conference  negotiations begin, I will consider that to be an indication that JWST is no  higher in priority than any other existing or planned NASA activity. . . . [Here  staff contact information was provided.]

“Thank you for your  assistance in this matter.

“Sincerely,

“Frank R Wolf       Chairman       House Subcommittee on Commerce,  Justice, Science and Related Agencies”

A decision regarding FY 2012  funding for the telescope will be part of closed-door negotiations by Wolf and  Mikulski and other appropriators in what is widely expected to be an omnibus funding  bill for most if not all federal programs for the new fiscal year that starts  on Saturday.  Congressional leaders would  like to enact this bill by mid-November, when what will be a series of short  term measures are scheduled to expire.