House Science Committee Hearing Highlights Concerns About Webb Space Telescope

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Publication date: 
17 January 2012

“In  my view, NASA’s latest replan for the James Webb Space Telescope is the  agency’s last opportunity to hold this program together,” said House Science,  Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) at a hearing last  month.  Hall’s comments reflect the dual message  coming from this hearing: continued support for the telescope with concern and  occasional outrage about its growing cost.

Evidence  of this support was Hall’s declaration to his colleagues and the four witnesses  testifying at this hearing. “I support the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST].  The science enabled by this mission will be  extraordinary” he said, reaffirming the outcome of the final FY 2012  appropriation for JWST.  NASA requested $373.7  million for the telescope; the final bill provided $529.6 million.  House and Senate negotiators included  extensive language  in the  conference report on the telescope, including provisions “strictly limiting  JWST formulation and development costs to the current estimate of  $8,000,000,000.”  The increased FY 2012  funding reflects this year’s allotment to deal with “an increase of  $1,208,000,000 over the previous lifecycle cost estimate” for the telescope.

In  her remarks, Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) touched on  the same points, but also raised the issue of how the higher cost estimate for JWST  would affect funding for other NASA programs: “It is very important that NASA  ensure that this project proceeds without further turmoil.  As we will hear today, the telescope  project’s cost growth will have a negative impact on all of NASA’s science  activities -- not just those in its astrophysics division.  In dealing with the cuts that will be required,  I think it is important that NASA allocate the cuts to its science program in a  balanced manner that doesn’t unduly target any single area, such as NASA’s  planetary science program.”

Four  witnesses testified at the one-hour, forty-minute hearing, including Richard  Howard, the Director for NASA’s JWST Program.   After thanking the committee and Congress for its support, he got right  to his key point: “We at NASA recognize that we made your already difficult  task of funding important programs in these distressed fiscal times even more  difficult because of our poor past performance on JWST.  We are thus even more determined to restore  your confidence in NASA by delivering a successful JWST on the new cost and  schedule baseline that we have developed.” 

The  other witnesses took a similar approach of acknowledging past management  shortcomings and assuring the committee that the project was now under much  tighter control.  Stanford University Professor  Roger Blandford, Chair of the 2010 Committee for a Decadal Survey of Astronomy  and Astrophysics, told the committee “JWST promises to be a scientific ‘game  changer” adding “JWST is now much better understood than it was a year ago and  I am optimistic that it will be able to launch on its new schedule.” Jeffrey  Grant of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems offered similar assurances. 

University  of California – Santa Cruz Professor Garth Illingworth agreed, and offered a  detailed diagnosis of JWST’s past problems.   He stressed the importance of funding, in particular project reserves,  telling the committee in his prepared testimony “Adequate reserves in every  year are then not just desirable, they are essential if the project is to be  completed within cost and to schedule.”  Reserves  are needed when unexpected issues are encountered, Illingworth explaining “This  is not a reflection of management incompetence, management inexperience, poor  oversight or lack of independent assessments.”

Committee  members expressed keen interest in avoiding further cost overruns or  delays.  Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) asked  about project milestones that the committee can use to determine if JWST is on  track.  Howard told her that nineteen of  twenty-one FY 2011 milestones have been met or are on schedule.  One milestone was delayed because of weather  conditions and another deferred for a design change.  In FY 2012 there are 37 milestones, including  the delivery of all four science instruments that will be integrated and tested.  Mirror testing should be completed within the  next few months.  Sunshades to shield the  telescope have been completed.

Rep.  Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) were by far the  most critical of the project’s management, with Rohrabacher asking Howard several  pointed questions about what programs would be impacted.  Howard explained that half of the additional  $156 million over the President’s request for FY 2012 will be taken from other  science programs, and the remainder from cross-agency support activities.   Rohrabacher asked about the status of a  number of programs, with Howard explaining that some had already been moved  back on the priority list, with others being reviewed.  Rohrabacher was not pleased, charging NASA  had glossed over incompetence and mismanagement.

The  hearing concluded because of a roll call vote on the House floor.  There are two take-away messages from this  hearing, best made by Chairman Hall and Professor Blandford:

Said  Hall: “Congress’ tolerance for these types of over-runs has run out.”

Concluded  Blandford: “In summary, launching and operating JWST would be scientifically  transformational, internationally inspirational. It would also make a powerful  statement that the United States still has the resolve to execute large,  technically challenging and innovative scientific projects. No other country currently  has this capability.