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NASA: Extra money needed to launch JWST this decade

Posted: July 14, 2011

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One week after a House subcommittee proposed terminating NASA's costly successor to the orbiting Hubble observatory, agency officials told an advisory panel Thursday that the James Webb Space Telescope can be launched as soon as 2018, but political realities could delay the mission's start well into the 2020s.

Artist's concept of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA
Following an independent assessment condemning JWST's management practices, NASA kicked off its own review to come up with a realistic projection of the flagship space telescope's projected launch date and total cost.

Rick Howard, NASA's JWST program director, said the agency determined the observatory could launch on a European Ariane 5 rocket as soon as October 2018, but it would require fresh funding.

And with the federal government focused on wrangling in debt, a budget increase for the troubled JWST project is unlikely. NASA officials were speaking to the agency's astrophysics advisory council, a board of senior researchers chartered to provide advice and input in major scientific and programmatic decisions.

"To get to [launch] in 2018, it's going to take a significant amount of new funds," Howard said.

But no one would say how much it will cost to launch the telescope in 2018. The White House has embargoed those figures until the Obama administration rolls out its fiscal year 2013 budget request next February.

Until then, scientists said, it will be difficult to persuade the astronomy and astrophysics communities JWST is still worth continued NASA investment, which is gobbling up the agency's dwindling space science budget and holding back the start of other missions.

NASA has spent $3.5 billion on JWST to date. An independent review team reported in November the mission would likely cost at least $6.5 billion, assuming it could launch in 2015.

In President Obama's last budget request, which covers the fiscal year starting in October, the administration proposed spending $375 million annually on JWST over the next five years. To many scientists attending the two-day advisory council meeting in Washington this week, that is the best-case scenario.

The House Appropriations Committee's panel overseeing NASA last week released a draft budget that would cancel JWST. There is more support for the mission in the Senate, but budget-conscious lawmakers could sway Congress to slash JWST's budget or keep it flat.

"If we stick at that, we're talking about stretching out the program and launching well beyond 2020," Howard said. "I think, personally, that is not a viable solution space."

Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for science, called the Obama administration's flat budget for JWST a "road to nowhere."

"You'll get to launch, but our grandchildren will have to use it," Weiler said.

Stretching out the program and launching the observatory in the 2020s will inevitably add to the mission's overall cost, Weiler said.

"If you want to do JWST as early as possible, and with a high level of confidence...this is the replan you want to use," Howard said. "If you start pushing things out to the right, it's going to cost more. If you want the least amount of money from the taxpayer, this is it."

Delaying the launch beyond 2020 would also stress the development team's ability to stay focused on the project. Howard said two of his primary concerns are keeping the team intact and storing some components, such as mirrors and instruments, which are due for completion by 2012 and not due for more work until years later.

"It is best to complete this work and retire the risk...rather than stretching out the delivery schedules of the instruments from Europe or Canada or stopping and starting test activities," Howard said. "The result is you have long periods of low levels of activity or inactivity for some subsystems."

Speaking to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee this week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden implied JWST could be launched at the same cost as Hubble.

"I would say that for about the same cost as Hubble in real-year dollars, we'll bring James Webb into operation," Bolden said.

NASA has spent about $10 billion on Hubble since its inception, but it was launched years later than planned after development difficulties, rising costs and the Challenger accident of 1986.

"JWST hasn't got close yet to the 400 percent overruns on Hubble," Weiler said. "No one remembers the Hubble overruns yet because it's the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Diagram of JWST's major components. Credit: NASA
The next-generation James Webb mission will be parked one million miles from Earth, out of reach of any conceivable servicing and repair mission. Hubble's success is due to the space shuttle's ability to fix broken parts and replace scientific instruments in low Earth orbit.

Weiler and Howard agreed scaling back JWST's lofty science ambitions would do nothing to save money at this point.

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.

JWST will also track the evolution of galaxies, observe star formation and measure the chemical make-up planets beyond the solar system, potentially investigating whether life is possible on those planets.

It carries four instruments built by consortiums in the United States, Europe and Canada.

"It's too late in the program," Weiler said. The instruments are almost delivered. The mirrors are finished. It's like all over the [world], you're building a car where the carburetor is in California and the motor's in Germany. The good news is we've got most of the pieces built. How do we descope it when the real cost is putting it all together?"

A team evaluating JWST's lengthy test campaign recommended shaving six months from the mission's development by eliminating redundant tests and optimizing the schedule.

About 75 percent of the flight hardware, as measured by mass, is ready to fabricate, in fabrication, in testing or already delivered, according to NASA. That doesn't account for complicated lightweight mechanisms like the sunshield, a five-layer insulating blanket the size of a tennis court.

The sunshield will keep JWST's infrared instruments cool enough to resolve cold pockets of the universe and distant galaxies.

"Descoping and cutting things back aren't going to help you, other than losing science," Howard said. "You're not going to gain anything by doing it."