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House panel proposes killing Hubble telescope successor

Posted: July 6, 2011

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Legislators seeking to rein in government spending have put the troubled James Webb Space Telescope up for cancellation, saying the successor to NASA's Hubble observatory is haunted by poor management and out-of-control costs.

Artist's concept of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA
The next-generation space telescope is mired in a budgetary black hole. With an estimated cost of $6.5 billion and a cascade of delays, the flagship space mission could still be on the ground in 2018, NASA officials told Congress in April.

Managers privately said launch of JWST could slip even later due to federal spending cutbacks. President Obama's 2012 budget proposal called for flat spending on JWST at $375 million annually over the next five years.

Developed as the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. With a 21.3-foot-diameter primary mirror, the telescope is designed to peer back in time almost to the Big Bang, giving astronomers a glimpse of infant galaxies as the universe cooled after its formation.

The proposal to terminate JWST came from the House Appropriations Committee's panel overseeing NASA. The committee released their 2012 spending bill Wednesday, calling for more than $1.6 billion in cuts to NASA's budget from this year's levels.

The Republican-led House subcommittee suggested a $16.8 billion NASA budget for fiscal year 2012, which begins in October. That's $1.9 billion less than the White House proposed in February.

"The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management," lawmakers said in a press release.

The Senate and the White House, which include JWST supporters, will weigh in on the federal budget before it becomes law. The budget must also pass the full House of Representatives.

NASA officials have repeatedly told Congress, researchers and journalists that JWST's exorbitant cost is prohibiting the agency from conducting other astrophysics missions. JWST's budget problems will likely keep NASA from launching a gravitational wave detector named LISA or the International X-ray Observatory until the 2020s.

In a report on NASA's JWST project management practices, an independent review panel said in November that the James Webb telescope needed an extra $500 million over the next two years to have a chance of launching by the end of 2015.

The additional funding never materialized, prompting NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to tell a Senate committee in April that a realistic estimate of JWST's launch date could be as late as 2018.

Before the independent review's release in November, NASA officially forecasted JWST would blast off in 2014. In the months since the panel issued its findings, NASA managers' unofficial statements have moved JWST's launch forecast four years later.

Six of JWST's 18 primary mirror segments have completed cryogenic testing. Credit: NASA
The report blamed mismanagement and poor budget discipline for the project's rising costs, leading JWST's cost billions of dollars beyond NASA's expectations. It pegged the mission's expected cost at $6.5 billion.

NASA has finished its own internal analysis of JWST's cost and schedule, according to Dwayne Brown, an agency spokesperson.

"This required a detailed analysis of all the work that remains to be done including all hardware components as well as a revised integration and test program," Brown told Spaceflight Now. "This has been completed and the new plan is undergoing independent review within the agency and by an outside team of experts to ensure adequate levels of both cost and schedule reserves in the appropriate years to successfully complete JWST development."

According to Brown, the new cost and schedule baseline will help inform the Obama administration's next federal budget request to be issued in February 2012. NASA's own budget and launch date projections will not be released until the internal reviews are complete, Brown said.

The independent review team concluded JWST was making steady technical progress despite the budget issues. About three-fourths of the telescope's hardware is already in production, according to Northrop Grumman Corp., JWST's prime contractor.

NASA announced last week that all of the telescope's mirrors completed polishing, and most of the beryllium mirror segments have been coated with a thin film of gold to efficently reflect infrared light.

The mirror segments are also now undergoing cryogenic tests in a super-cold chamber at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Ala.

Scientists are also finishing work on JWST's four research instruments designed to peer deep into the cosmos and unravel how the infant universe formed and evolved.

But much more construction and testing remain, especially on the chassis that will contain JWST's science instruments and on the spacecraft itself.