WASHINGTON — NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would not launch before 2016 at the earliest if funding for the flagship-class astronomy mission remains flat at the $375 million level President Barack Obama requested for 2012, according to agency officials.

Funding for the infrared observatory, which is over budget and well behind schedule, will remain at $375 million through 2016 under the administration’s budget plan, delivered to U.S. lawmakers Feb. 14.

In November, an independent review concluded NASA would need an additional $500 million beyond what was projected for JWST over the next two years just to keep a June 2014 target launch date from slipping more than 15 months, to September 2015. NASA had budgeted $444.8 million and $379.2 million for JWST in 2011 and 2012, respectively, in the 2011 spending plan submitted to Congress last February.

NASA recently restructured JWST’s management team and is revising cost and schedule estimates for the program. But with Congress yet to approve last year’s funding request, spending on NASA programs is constrained to 2010 ceilings this year, leaving JWST well short of the funding the review panel said was needed to preserve a late 2015 launch date. Moreover, NASA could be in store for a reduction from 2010 spending levels this year if a bill introduced in February by House Republicans gets adopted in its current form.

“As time goes on it’s getting more and more problematic to have anything in [20]11, and certainly additional money in [20]12 is looking more and more problematic, so [20]15 is definitely out of the question as we march down time,” JWST Program Director Rick Howard said during a Feb. 14 conference call with reporters. “Maybe [20]16 is possible, maybe it’s not, but certainly [20]15 is not.”

Howard said NASA hopes to finalize JWST’s revised costs and schedule estimates this summer and incorporate them into the president’s 2013 spending plan, potentially delaying an infusion of extra cash for the program until Oct. 1, 2012.

“We need to develop a realistic cost and schedule baseline that accounts for adequate cost and schedule reserves and look for offsets that might be required to pull that launch date in, if it’s worth it for the agency and the administration to accept those offsets to go with an earlier launch date than what this profile would suggest,” Howard said during the press conference.

Although JWST is an astronomy mission, NASA last year removed it from the agency’s broader astrophysics spending account, giving the program its own budget line. The idea was to protect other astronomy missions from having their budgets raided to cover cost growth on the $5 billion-plus JWST, NASA’s designated replacement for the hugely successful Hubble Space Telescope.

But Howard said NASA’s proposed 2012 astrophysics budget, roughly $683 million, may yet be tapped to help cover JWST’s costs.

“Astrophysics is an equal party, as heliophysics is, as planetary is and as Earth science is, to [a Science Mission Directorate] solution for any offsets that would happen,  Howard told the NASA Advisory Council astrophysics subcommittee during a Feb. 16 public meeting here. “That’s a discussion that will go on with the administrator, and the administrator will then decide how much in other areas he wants to adjust in order to meet the profile. Or not. That’s a discussion that will have to happen over the next several months.”

He also did not rule out the potential for NASA to seek additional funding for JWST from programs outside science.

“The goal is to launch JWST as early as we can with a realistic schedule and cost,” he said during the public meeting. “Delaying it only increases the cost and pushes it out, there’s no doubt about that. But there are impacts to what that [funding] profile will look like and within an agency top-level budget that’s flat, those are going to be offsets somewhere within the agency.”



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