UPDATE: JWST Supporters to Make Their Case As Controversy Grows

UPDATE: JWST Supporters to Make Their Case As Controversy Grows

UPDATE: The STScI webinar has been postponed from September 19 to September 21 and more speakers have been added.

As controversy grows in the science community over whether the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is worth the price, a group of its supporters will hold a webinar next Monday to give an update on the program and answer questions.

The webinar is sponsored by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which manages operations of the Hubble Space Telescope and will manage operations of JWST. The telescope’s cost estimate has grown significantly in the past year and is now expected to be $8.7 billion. Before an independent review in 2010, the cost estimate was approximately $5 billion. The independent review, headed by John Casani, concluded it would cost about $6.5 billion and launch would be delayed from 2014 to 2015, but meeting that cost and launch date required the immediate infusion of additional funds that NASA did not have. A more detailed analysis is ongoing within NASA. Its results have not been officially released, but are the source of the $8.7 billion estimate. The Casani review faulted budgeting and management problems, not technical challenges, as the reasons for the overrun.

A NASA spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline.com on July 28 via email that $3.5 billion will have been spent on JWST by the end of FY2011. In response to a statement by University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner on NPR’s Science Friday that JWST was 75 percent complete, the NASA spokesman clarified that 75 percent of JWST “flight hardware, by weight, is either ready to be fabricated, in fabrication, in testing, or delivered.” He declined to specify a cost estimate or launch date because discussions among NASA, its contractors and international partners on a “sustainable path forward…based on a realistic cost, funding, and schedule assessment” are ongoing. He said a decision would be announced as part of the FY2013 budget request. The prime contractor for JWST is Northrop Grumman. The program is being conducted in cooperation with the European Space Agency, which will launch it on an Ariane rocket.

Where NASA will find the money to compensate for the overrun is the critical issue. Scientists in other NASA space and earth science discplines worry that their programs will be sacrificed. Ordinarily if a NASA science project encounters cost overruns, the additional costs must be found within that same science discipline, but if an overrun is big enough and the program important enough, dipping into other programs’ budgets is permitted, even outside of the Science Mission Directorate. Of course, any NASA budget decision is subject to approval successively by the NASA Administrator, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and, ultimately, Congress.

The House Appropriations Committee recommended that JWST be terminated when it approved its version of the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee, scheduled to markup its version of the bill at subcommittee level on Wednesday, is expected to be more friendly. JWST’s development is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD and STScI is in Baltimore. The chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), represents Maryland and is an enthusiastic supporter of space and earth science generally. The question remains, however, as to where the money will be found.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), which is often viewed as the voice of the astrophysics community, is strongly supportive of JWST. Rifts have opened recently, however, as summarized in today’s issue of The Space Review. In a mailing to its members today that is posted on SpaceRef, the AAS leadership stresses that they support all of their disciplines and not one “to the detriment of others.” They urge their members to recall Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Dr. John Mather, who co-won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovery of the cosmic microwave background, is a senior project scientist for JWST at GSFC whose name is almost synonymous with the program’s scientific goals. He and 31 other Nobel Laureates signed a letter to the editor of the New York Times on August 26, 2011 arguing that “every possible effort should be made to launch the Webb as early as possible.”

The STScI webinar is at 2:00 pm EDT on September 19. Mather is not one of the participants, however. The three speakers are Matt Mountain, STScI director; Eric Smith, JWST Deputy Program Director at NASA Headquarters; and Roberto Abraham, University of Toronto.

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