James Webb Space Telescope Needs More Money to Meet New 2018 Launch Date

James Webb Space Telescope Needs More Money to Meet New 2018 Launch Date

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will launch in 2018 only if NASA receives more funding for the program than the flat budget assumed in the President’s FY2012 budget request according to an agency official.

JWST is usually described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, although it will study the universe in a different part of the spectrum (infrared instead of visible) and from a very different location (the L2 Lagrange point instead of Earth orbit).

NASA’s Rick Howard told the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee on April 21 that the agency is still looking at how best to “rebaseline” the program to move forward. That effort will be completed in the coming weeks. Howard was designated as JWST Program Director last fall after an independent review faulted the program’s “budgeting and program management, not technical performance” as the cause of substantial cost increases. That report said the earliest launch date was 2015 if certain financial resources — $500 million for each of FY2011 and FY2012 — were made available. Howard is doing a more detailed assessment and looking more closely at what funds are likely to be provided.

Howard stressed that he is still gathering data to feed into the agency’s Joint Confidence Level (JCL) independent cost estimating process before any decisions are made. The last three years of the program preparing for launch are “incompressible,” he said. If a launch date prior to 2018 is desired, the schedule could be moved forward only if more money is provided in the immediate future (FY2012 or FY2013). Absent such increases the agency is looking at 2018 as the earliest launch date, which is five years later than the original plan.

Achieving the 2018 date also requires more funds in the longer term than what is in NASA’s FY2012 projection. That “runout” shows the program flat funded at $375 million per year for the next five years. Howard said if that really turned out to be the budget for the program, launch would be pushed out into the 2020s.

Howard said funding adjustments would have to be discussed within the agency and with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Several committee members emphasized that programs like JWST cannot be accomplished with flat budgets and said they hoped OMB and OSTP realize that.

NASA plans to spend $471 million on JWST in this fiscal year (FY2011) and Howard insisted the amount for FY2011 would not be lower than that. As an agency, NASA received $561 million less than the $19 billion it requested for FY2011. The agency is developing an operating plan to show how to plans to spend the approximately $18.5 billion that Congress provided. Howard clearly believes that JWST will not be a place where cuts are made to accommodate the lower appropriation.

Meanwhile, JWST hardware is being delivered to NASA. One issue is how to store everything for this unexpectedly lengthy period of time and deal with obsolescence and workforce issues. Howard asked rhetorically how many of the people working on the program would want to stay with it now that the launch date is so many years later than planned.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, is a long time cheerleader for NASA and its space and earth science programs, many of which are managed at Goddard Space Flight Center in her State. She has been an ardent advocate for JWST, but her displeasure at the new cost overruns that emerged last year was made clear when she demanded the independent review that led to the current replanning effort (the “Casani report,” after its chair, John Casani).

At an April 11, 2011 hearing, she expressed her continued support for the telescope, but exasperation at the overruns, pointedly asking NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden what he was doing to make the program succeed. Bolden replied that “no one was more disappointed and angry” than he was when NASA “got to the bottom of the situation.” He said he had made management changes at the agency and was working with the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, but declined to discuss what the company is doing.

Bolden was the first to reveal, at the hearing, that the agency is currently looking at a 2018 launch date. Mikulski asked whether NASA was going to request the extra $500 million for FY2011 and FY2012 identified in the Casani report, but Bolden said he could not “responsibly” make such a proposal, which is why 2018 is NASA’s current target. He said the agency does not need more money in FY2011 to meet a 2018 launch date, and is still looking at how much would be needed in 2012. He told the Senator he hoped to have an answer soon. Mikulski said she was all for being “frugal,” but not “foolish. ” She does not want to scrimp now and end up paying much more in the future. “If we don’t spend the money now, when will we spend it, and will it cost more?” she asked. NASA will answer those questions when its review is completed.

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