NASA Acknowledges Webb Telescope Replan Will Delay Other Science Missions

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WASHINGTON — Saving the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — an infrared deep-space observatory now expected to cost $8.8 billion — will mean that some other NASA science missions slated for launch after 2015 will have to be delayed, the U.S. space agency acknowledged in a report delivered to Congress in late October.

NASA, however, did not say in the report which missions might be delayed.

“That is still in discussion, even for 2012, within NASA and the administration,” JWST Program Manager Rick Howard told members of the NASA Advisory Committee’s Science Committee during a Nov. 1 conference call.

Howard also held to the line, which NASA has repeated since the summer, that specific offsets to pay for JWST will not be identified until U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his 2013 budget request for NASA to Congress. That traditionally takes place in February.

NASA was legally bound to deliver the so-called breach report because JWST has exceeded its baseline cost estimate by more than 30 percent. Since 2009, the telescope’s projected development cost has risen from $2.58 billion to nearly $6.2 billion, a 140 percent increase, according to the JWST Project Cost and Schedule Analysis Report, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

A source familiar with the JWST budget discussions told Space News that the $6.2 billion figure in the breach report does not include $1.8 billion spent on JWST prior to July 2008, when the project was still in the formulation phase that includes concept studies and preliminary design. That puts JWST’s development costs at about $8 billion — exactly at the maximum allowable level that the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee established in its version of NASA’s 2012 budget as a condition for restoring funds for the long-delayed flagship telescope.

Howard said NASA delivered the 10-page breach report to U.S. lawmakers Oct. 24.

In the report, NASA also acknowledged for the first time that building JWST and operating it for five years will now cost $8.835 billion, or about $100 million more than agency conceded in August.

JWST operations costs also are expected to run substantially higher. As recently as this spring, NASA assumed that operating the telescope in orbit would cost about $100 million a year; that estimate has since risen to about $180 million a year, according to the report.

NASA still envisions launching the telescope aboard a European rocket in October 2018.

For 2012 through 2016, JWST will need a total of nearly $3.1 billion, or about $1.2 billion more than the White House previously budgeted for the project for that five-year period. For 2012, the report says, JWST will need $527.6 million, or about $154 million more than the White House requested for the project next year. Under the revised plan, JWST spending would peak at $659.1 million in 2014 before gradually declining in the lead up to launch. NASA has already increased JWST’s 2011 funding by $44 million “without significant impact to other science projects,” the breach report says.

NASA science missions slated to launch several years from now, however, will not be so lucky.

“The impacts being assessed in Science would delay some future missions, which are currently planned for launch beyond 2015,” the report says.

Paying for JWST also will entail cutting back the agency’s Cross-Agency Support budget to its 2010 level, a reduction the report says will require the agency’s field centers to lay off approximately 360 on-site support contractors nationwide.

NASA also said in the report that a number of alternatives to JWST — including a scaled-back version with a primary mirror about half the size of JWST’s 6.5-meter optical array — would have fallen short of JWST’s scientific capabilities without providing substantial savings.

The alternative projects NASA listed in the breach report were culled from a longer report that the agency commissioned from the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.

Besides a smaller version of JWST, other alternatives explored in the Aerospace Corp. study included abandoning space-based observation in favor of a ground-based observatory with a 30-meter aperture or launching a pair of 3-meter space telescopes and supporting them with new ground-based observatories.

According to NASA, the Aerospace Corp. ultimately concluded none of the alternatives would deliver as much science any faster or cheaper than JWST.

“NASA agrees with the findings of the Aerospace analysis,” the space agency wrote in the report. “The current, baseline JWST program is the best value alternative, even at the higher cost to go.”