NASA Budget Bill Goes to House Floor Without Money for Webb: Lawmakers Hint at Possible Deal To Save JWST

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WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee approved a 2012 spending bill July 13 that brings NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) one step closer to cancellation, even as one key lawmaker signaled he might be willing to work a deal to save the embattled telescope.

The possibility of a deal emerged almost in the same breath as more bad news for the planned observatory: It may now cost as much as $8 billion, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said.

Prior to the vote that sent the bill to the House floor, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, told Wolf, “I hope that as we work through this we could restore the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Wolf told Dicks that “we will work with you,” setting up the possibility of an amendment on the House floor to bring back money for Webb. JWST is the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and astronomers and astrophysicists have pinned plans for advancing the state of their fields to the new orbiting observatory.

Wolf, who chairs the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that makes appropriations for NASA and other federal agencies, told Space News that his latest cradle-to-grave cost estimate for the JWST came from a July 11 conversation with officials at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Chuck Young, a spokesman for the Government Accountability Office, said in a July 15 email to <em>Space News</em> that a JWST life-cycle cost of $7 billion to $8 billion “was in the range of possibilities.”

Rick Howard, NASA’s JWST Program Director, said “it is premature to confirm any costs or range of costs” for JWST until NASA budget “replan” for the telescope is complete. NASA says the results of this “replan” will be used to formulate the agency’s 2013 budget request for Webb.

JWST is billions of dollars overbudget and, according to NASA Administrator Charles <span class=”removed_link” title=”http://dev.spacenews.com/profile/bolden/”>Bolden</span>, may not launch until 2018 — five years later than planned when the construction began on the project in 2008.

A congressionally mandated independent review of the program, led by John Casani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., concluded in October that the JWST would cost $6.5 billion and launch in late 2015. NASA at the time was projecting a $5 billion price tag and a 2014 launch date for JWST.

The Casani report’s cost and launch date projections assumed a $500 million increase over planned JWST funding levels during a two-year period from 2011 to 2012. The cash infusion did not materialize, either in the 2011 appropriation or the 2012 request for JWST.

The only formal attempt so far to restore money for JWST was swiftly shot down by appropriators during the July 13 markup of the 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill.

The House Appropriations Committee took fewer than three minutes to reject by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) that would have restored a portion of the $375 million NASA wanted for JWST in 2012.

At press time, a full House vote on the bill had not been scheduled.

Meanwhile, at a July 12 hearing, Bolden said NASA has received the result of its “replan” for JWST — a report the agency will use to form its revamped budget for the project. NASA is keeping the results of the report to itself for now. The space agency has said it will reveal its plan for Webb in the next budget cycle, presumably meaning details will not be available until February 2012.

Whatever Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill for 2012 the House approves will have to be reconciled with corresponding legislation produced by the U.S. Senate, where JWST has powerful backing.

In particular, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, is a staunch supporter of the Webb telescope. JWST is being managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and its on-orbit science operations would be managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Mikulski’s subcommittee has yet to produce a bill.

Wolf’s House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee on July 6 unveiled its plan to kill JWST as part big top-line cut to NASA’s 2012 budget. NASA would get $16.8 billion for 2012 — $1.9 billion less than its request and $1.6 billion less than it got this year. Republicans who took control of the House following the 2010 elections campaigned on a pledge to reduce federal spending to 2008 levels.

A manager’s amendment offered by Wolf did pass, which orders NASA to “continue aggressive efforts to ensure a seamless employment transition for the Space Shuttle program employees,” including “civil servants and contractors.” In particular, the agency is to provide notices to laid-off shuttle employees about job openings in “other government agencies with active aerospace programs.”

The manager’s amendment also ordered NASA to provide, by Sept. 30, a detailed report about all the shuttle workers who left either the agency or its prime shuttle contractor, United Space Alliance of Houston, before Aug. 31. The report must detail the steps that NASA took to provide “individualized transition assistance” to affected personnel.