WASHINGTON — NASA in August redirected $44 million in 2011 funds to the massively overbudget James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in a move that helped avert contractor furloughs at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the program’s top manager said.

Addressing a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s astrophysics subcommittee here Oct. 19, JWST Program Director Rick Howard said $12 million of the reprogrammed funding was needed to finish modifications to a cryogenic test chamber at Johnson, where NASA is exposing some of the observatory’s gold-plated mirrors to the temperature extremes they will encounter in space.

The modifications had to be done this year to avert furloughs of contractors working at Johnson, Howard said. “They were about to furlough people, and we did not want to stop the momentum on that activity that was coming up,” Howard said.

Congress appropriated $471 million in 2011 for the flagship-class JWST, billed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The reprogrammed funding, which boosted the program’s 2011 budget to $515 million, came from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Howard said.

Originally expected to cost less than $2 billion and launch in 2010, JWST has been plagued by cost overruns and delays throughout its history. NASA recently acknowledged that the cost of the mission, including development and five years of operations, had ballooned to $8.7 billion, assuming a launch in 2018.

NASA in April completed a replan of JWST, but has been reluctant to divulge the details prior to the release of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request, which is expected in February. This has been a source of heartburn for at least one U.S. lawmaker with a key role in funding NASA, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who says he needs those details to decide how much money, if any, to allocate to JWST in 2012.

Wolf chairs the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which in July recommended eliminating funding for JWST next year. The Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee recommended providing  $529.6 million; a final funding figure is expected to be decided in the coming weeks.

Some of the JWST details sought by Wolf could be forthcoming in a so-called breach report, which NASA is legally obligated to provide for programs that cross a certain threshold in cost growth. Howard said that report should be delivered to lawmakers within the next two weeks.

NASA requested $375 million for JWST next year, but Howard said the agency now believes it will need $156 million more than that, similar to the Senate recommendation. He said the extra money would be drawn in equal amounts from NASA’s Cross Agency Support and Science Mission Directorate accounts, but in the latter case Earth science will be exempted.

From 2013 to 2016, JWST will need another $1.1 billion above the $1.5 billion that NASA had in the out-year spending profile released in February with its 2012 budget request. Howard did not specify which funding accounts that money would be drawn from, but suggested that all of NASA’s divisions will be affected.

“This is still pain because this impacts ongoing programs — plans for the future across the board, across the divisions,” Howard said. Because of the effort to save JWST, these divisions “will not be able to execute the plan they had,” he said.

The JWST replan is entirely based on the president’s 2012 budget request, which assumes a higher funding level for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate than either the House or the Senate has proposed for 2012.

“We don’t know how this would shake out if the agency got a significant reduction below the president’s budget request, or if the science directorate got a significant reduction,” Howard said. 

As Howard spoke, the Senate was in the middle of a push to pass an appropriations package that combines three of the traditional 12 appropriations bills into a single spending measure. This so-called “minibus” spending plan includes the Senate’s version of NASA’s 2012 budget. The Senate had not yet scheduled a vote on this measure at press time Oct. 21.



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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.