NASA Chief Suggests Webb Telescope Won’t Launch before 2018

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WASHINGTON — Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) stands to be delayed until 2018, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told lawmakers April 11.

NASA had been planning to launch JWST in June 2014, but an independent review released last fall called that date into question.

Appearing before the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee to defend his agency’s 2012 budget, Bolden said NASA does not need any new money this year in order to make a 2018 launch.

“We honestly do not think we need money in fiscal ’11 … to continue to carry the program to the point where we can make what we think now is a reasonable launch date of 2018,” Bolden told the subcommittee’s chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “But if something does happen and we find that we have more funds in 2011, we will put them to use to accelerate some of the testing that we are doing or some of the other developmental work.”

As Bolden was testifying, House and Senate appropriators were busy finalizing the $38 billion worth of cuts contained in the budget compromise the White House and Congress reached April 8 to avert a government shutdown. The spending bill posted on the House Appropriations Committee website April 12 trims NASA’s budget back to $18.5 billion for the remainder of the current fiscal year and provides $4.95 billion for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, a slight reduction that makes no explicit allowance for increasing the JWST budget.

Last November, an independent review ordered by Mikulski and led by John Casani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory concluded that JWST was at least $1.5 billion over budget and 15 months behind schedule. The Casani report said NASA would need to add $500 million to JWST’s budget in 2011 and 2012 in order to keep the telescope on track for a September 2015 launch.

NASA’s 2012 budget request includes $375 million or less for JWST for each of the next five years.

Bolden indicated during the hearing that NASA would accept a lengthier delay rather than seek the amount of money the Casani report recommended.

“I respect the Casani report,” Bolden said. “When we looked at what they said and where we are in these fiscal times I cannot responsibly bring myself to this committee or any other and propose that someone try to find $500 million a year for the foreseeable future.”

Bolden said NASA expects to complete by the end of April a new budget and schedule baseline for JWST, its single most expensive spacecraft in development.

“There will be some additional spending that will be required but we have not arrived at that yet,” Bolden said. “We right now are looking at how much we need to add in 2012.”

Mikulski said she was concerned that if NASA “skimps” on JWST now it will end up paying more for the program in the long run.

“Everyone at this table is for a more frugal government. I’m ready to be frugal but I don’t want to be foolish,” said Mikulski, whose state of Maryland is home to two facilities with huge stakes in JWST — NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

“I’m concerned that if we don’t do the right thing now, it will cost us more in the future,” Mikulski continued, imploring Bolden not to be shy about asking for more money for JWST.

“We need to hear truly what is needed, not what you think you can get [the White House Office of Management and Budget] to agree to, or what we can even get the House and ourselves to agree to,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mikulski’s Republican counterpart, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, pressed Bolden to seek more money in 2012 for programs important to her state, namely the Orion crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket.

“Like the president, I have no problem calling the capsule we continue to develop Orion, yet we see no movement from NASA to continue the program at all,” Hutchison said. “This budget proposes only $1 billion for Orion in [fiscal year]FY- ’12 while the authorized level for the same year calls for $1.4 billion and the plan for ongoing work prior to NASA’s cancellation attempts would have had it at $2 billion. This budget deliberately hamstrings the ability for Orion to reach an operability date in 2016.”

The compromise spending plan the House and Senate expect to adopt this week includes $1.2 billion for Orion and $1.4 billion for a heavy-lift rocket.

Hutchison also said NASA’s 2012 budget includes too much money for commercial crew initiatives. NASA is seeking $850 million to seed development of privately developed spacecraft and rockets capable of transporting astronauts to the international space station.

“While I know the commercial companies will eventually become successful I do not feel that the information now available justifies such a large investment of federal dollars for commercial vehicles,” Hutchison said.

 

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