American Astronomical Society Urges Continuation of Funding for James Webb Space Telescope

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Publication date: 
7 June 2011


The American Astronomical Society (AAS) reacted quickly to a release issued on July 6 by the House Appropriations Committee announcing that the draft version of the FY 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill would terminate funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In its statement, AAS, one of ten Member Societies of the American Institute of Physics, said, “The United States position as the leader in astronomy, space science, and spaceflight is directly threatened by this proposal,” adding “The American Astronomical Society calls upon all members of Congress to support JWST to its completion and to provide strong oversight on the path to this goal.”

Little is known about this decision by the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), to terminate funding for the telescope. The committee’s summary only states: “The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.”

While questions were asked of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden about the Webb Telescope at the subcommittee’s hearing on NASA in early March, there was no indication that the subcommittee would take this action. Of note, at the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on NASA in April, Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), as reported in FYI:

cautioned Bolden that big cuts could be made to some NASA programs, specifically the James Webb Space Telescope, by other Members of Congress. Mikulski said the subcommittee was troubled by the management of the telescope, referring to an independent review that was released last November. Both Democratic and Republican appropriators, she warned, will not support projects with repeated cost overruns, predicting that the House would undoubtedly balk at projects that are not managed well. Mikulski restated her support for the telescope, but wanted assurances that Bolden was moving quickly to correct deficiencies in its management. Bolden outlined the staffing and other steps he has taken, and said NASA will have firmer cost figures by the end of April.

The full House Appropriations Committee will consider the subcommittee’s bill next week.

The statement issued today by the American Astronomical Society follows:

American Astronomical Society Statement on the James Webb Space Telescope Adopted 7 July 2011

The proposal released on July 6 by the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies to terminate the James Webb Space Telescope would waste more taxpayer dollars than it saves while simultaneously undercutting the critical effort to utilize American engineering and ingenuity to expand human knowledge. Such a proposal threatens American leadership in the fields of astrophysics and advanced space technology while likely eliminating hundreds, if not thousands, of high-tech jobs. Additionally, this proposal comes before the completion of a revised construction plan and budget for a launch of JWST by 2018. The United States position as the leader in astronomy, space science, and spaceflight is directly threatened by this proposal.

The JWST is the highest-ranked mission in the National Academy of Science’s Astronomy and Astrophysics decadal survey released in 2000 and remains a high priority for the Nation’s astronomers in this decade as well, as the revolutionary successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. This survey, conducted once every 10 years by hundreds of the Nation’s leading scientists, prioritizes -- based on scientific merit and impact -- projects proposed by the scientific community that require significant government support for completion. These reports represent a community consensus on the efforts necessary to advance our knowledge of the universe. The potential of JWST to transform astronomy underlies many of the activities recommended in the 2010 decadal report released last August. JWST is designed to observe well beyond Hubble’s capabilities. It is expected to serve thousands of astronomers in the coming decades to revolutionize our understanding of our place in the Universe, just as Hubble has done since its completion and launch just over two decades ago.

The JWST’s completion, launch, and operation will unveil new knowledge about the earliest formation of stars and planets and on a wide range of additional advanced scientific questions, including many not yet formulated. As was true with the Hubble Space Telescope, recognized as a tremendous success by the public, scientists, and policy-makers, building the most advanced telescopes comes with the risk of unexpected costs and delays. However, the whole Nation can rightly take pride in the engineering and scientific accomplishment that the completion and launch of such instruments represents. With the help of important international partners, we are the only nation that could lead such an effort; we should not shirk from completing the project when the most difficult engineering challenges have already been overcome. As stated in the Casani report, an independent review of project readiness completed late last year, “The JWST Project has made excellent progress in developing the difficult technologies required for its successful operation, and no technical constraints to successful completion have been identified.” The mirrors stand ready and waiting for integration into the spacecraft. The telescope has passed both preliminary design review and critical design review. It is time to complete construction and look ahead to JWST’s launch and science operations.

The American Astronomical Society calls upon all members of Congress to support JWST to its completion and to provide strong oversight on the path to this goal. Too many taxpayer dollars have already been spent to cancel the mission now; its benefits far outweigh the remaining costs. We must see the mission through. We are a great nation and we do great things. JWST represents our highest aspirations and will be one of our most significant accomplishments.

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