WASHINGTON — Congressional backers of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are preparing to defend the flagship NASA science mission against House budget hawks who intend to pull the plug on the project as part of a broad swath of NASA budget cuts unveiled July 6.

The proposal to kill JWST is included in the NASA portion of a 2012 spending bill that cleared the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee July 7. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the subcommittee’s chairman, gave no explanation for the cut during the hour-long markup session that preceded a voice vote to send the bill to the full committee for consideration July 13. But in a statement released ahead of the markup, appropriators said they were denying funding for JWST because the program “is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.”

Supporters of the project, notably Wolf’s counterpart on the Senate subcommittee in charge of NASA appropriations, immediately sallied forth to defend the troubled science mission.

“Killing the James Webb Space Telescope is shortsighted and misguided,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said in a July 7 statement. “The Administration must step in and fight for the James Webb Telescope.”

Mikulski has been a fierce advocate for the Webb telescope, which is being developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and would be operated in orbit by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Mikulski’s subcommittee has yet to unveil its appropriations bill for 2012.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told Space News July 7 that he has “an amendment to try to restore funding on key projects like Webb,” which he will introduce when the subcommittee’s bill goes before the full House Appropriations Committee. Schiff, whose congressional district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, got his spot on the House Appropriations Committee in 2007.

JWST’s price tag has been spiraling upward and its launch date has been slipping to the right for years. The project entered the implementation phase — in which the bulk of construction and testing occurs — in 2008. It was then expected to cost $4.5 billion and launch in 2014.

A cradle-to-grave estimate completed last fall by an independent panel established at Mikulski’s request concluded JWST would cost $6.5 billion and launch no sooner than September 2015. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in April told Mikulski’s subcommittee that the agency could not afford the $1.5 billion short-term cash infusion recommended by the panel and that the telescope might not launch until 2018, given its funding troubles.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, speaking at a July 7 press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said the agency is prepared to lay out a revised plan in the next budget cycle that would permit the launch of JWST “within the next decade.”

NASA’s 2012 budget proposal, submitted back in February, asked Congress for $375 million for JWST for the coming year — hundreds of millions less than what the independent review said the program would need to keep the launch from slipping beyond 2015. The 6,500-kilogram telescope is being designed to launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket as part of the European Space Agency’s contribution to the program.

The House subcommittee’s call for terminating JWST is part of a broader proposal to roll back overall NASA spending to $16.8 billion for 2012, or some $2 billion below the agency’s request and $1.6 billion less than it received this year. About one-fourth of the proposed reductions would come out of NASA’s science program, which would receive $4.5 billion next year — $513 million less than the president’s request — under the subcommittee’s bill. Assuming the NASA cuts clear the House intact, they must be reconciled with any changes adopted by the Senate before final spending legislation can be sent to Obama to be signed into law.

While lawmakers debate JWST’s future, work continues on the infrared telescope long billed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Most recently, prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems said the JWST team  had completed polishing the telescope’s mirrors. JWST has a 6.5-meter foldable mirror, in addition to a deployable, tennis court-sized sunshield.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which is funded in part by NASA, decried the proposal to kill JWST.

“Against a backdrop of widespread discussion over the future of NASA and the human spaceflight program, it is tragic that the Congress is also proposing to curtail NASA’s science program,” William Smith, the group’s president, said July 6 in a statement. “JWST is NASA’s premier science facility, unsurpassed by any other telescope now or in the future.”

Despite the support it enjoys in the astrophysics community, others in the space science community have argued that Webb’s ballooning price tag has sucked up funds that otherwise could have enabled numerous, smaller-scale missions.



NASA Budget Bill Would Cancel Webb Telescope

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.