JWST Must Make Good on ‘Last Opportunity,’ Committee Chairman Warns

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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee warned NASA the overbudget James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may not be given clemency again if the agency cannot execute its plan to launch the flagship science mission by 2018.

“In my view, NASA’s latest replan for the James Webb Space Telescope is the agency’s last opportunity to hold this program together,” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) said Dec. 6 during the first JWST hearing since Congress approved a $156 million cash infusion for the Hubble Space Telescope’s overbudget successor.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), the committee’s ranking Democrat, did not share Hall’s ultimatum, but insisted NASA deliver regular updates about its progress on JWST “so that we can have confidence that its milestones are being met and so that we can have early warning of any problems that may develop.”

JWST has far exceeded its original cost estimate, and launch has been delayed multiple times since construction on the telescope began in 2008. NASA now estimates JWST will launch in 2018 and cost $8.8 billion to build and operate in space for five years. In 2010, an independent review panel estimated the mission would cost $6.5 billion and launch in 2015. In 2008, NASA said the telescope would cost $5 billion and launch in 2013.

JWST has become an agency-wide priority for NASA. The agency’s Science Mission Directorate was the first division to be tapped for funds, with the Planetary Science, Earth Science and Astrophysics divisions providing a combined $80.7 million in 2012. NASA’s cross-agency support account provided the balance of the $156 million shortfall JWST faced in 2012. Eventually, nonscience programs will be expected to chip in funds, NASA officials including Administrator Charles Bolden have said.

NASA officials acknowledged in a breach report sent to Congress in late October that some science missions launching after 2015 will be delayed to pay for the telescope’s overruns. However, NASA has not yet said which programs will be affected.

The pressure to identify specific offsets for JWST increased midway through the Dec. 6 hearing when Hall excused himself from the proceedings and left the gavel in the hands of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a vocal critic of what he calls “gross mismanagement” on the JWST project.

Of four witnesses called to testify at the hearing, only one, JWST Program Director Rick Howard, works for NASA. Howard bore the brunt of Rohrabacher’s questioning.

At one point Rohrabacher asked Howard to “name some programs to be totally defunded” to pay for Webb.

Howard declined, but told the committee that NASA would identify some of the programs that will be affected by JWST’s overrun in early January, when the agency sends Congress its 2012 operating plan.

NASA operating plans typically are not made public. The documents serve as a means of informing congressional overseers about how the agency will spend its annual appropriation.

NASA had previously said that it would not disclose details of its new management plan for JWST until February, when the White House submits its 2013 budget request to Congress.

JWST was a point of contention in the 2012 appropriations process.

In July, appropriators in the Republican-controlled House produced a spending bill that would have killed the JWST. In the Senate, where Democrats have a majority, appropriators insisted in September on funding the project fully and eventually got their way. When NASA’s 2012 budget of $17.8 billion was enacted Nov. 18, JWST received $529.6 million — $156 million more than NASA sought for the program that year.

NASA estimates that if JWST is to launch in 2018, it will need about $1.1 billion more for 2013 through 2016 than the $1.5 billion — or $375 million a year — that the White House budgeted for the program in its 2012 funding request.