APS News

Concerted Effort Underway to Save Webb Telescope

By Michael Lucibella

The James Webb Space Telescope, billed as the heir to the hugely successful Hubble Space Telescope, is facing serious problems.  It’s way over budget and years behind schedule. However, the House of Representatives’ recent action to cancel the project prompted an outpouring of support in the science community that may have saved the project. Two months after the House zeroed out funding for the telescope, the Senate voted to restore it.

As these events were playing out, on August 1 the APS Executive Board issued a statement calling on Congress to continue to fund the telescope.

“The Board expresses particular concern and dismay that impending House action on appropriations for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies has already identified the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as a prime candidate for termination,” the statement read. “The APS rarely advocates for specific science projects, but it believes JWST deserves special attention, especially now.”

In addition, APS vice-President Michael Turner, of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, published editorials in both Science and Nature calling for the telescope to be saved.

“The JWST can still be saved, and should be. The budget for 2012 is yet to be settled and there is a groundswell of support for the telescope: professional societies around the globe have issued statements of support, online petitions have been organized and influential commen­tators have called for its completion,” Turner wrote in Nature. He added that he was concerned that, if not done properly, finishing the project could bankrupt American space sciences. “NASA must spread the additional cost across the agency so that it does not cripple the rest of US astrophysics.”

In Science, Turner compared the Webb with the Hubble space telescope for its potential transformative role in observing the universe. He added that in adjusted dollars, the Hubble cost about $13 billion to build, not including its servicing missions, while the Webb is still projected to cost about $8 billion.

The JWST will be a tennis-court sized infrared telescope, one hundred times more sensitive than the Hubble. It will be located at a Lagrange point one million miles from Earth, and astronomers plan to use it to study the formation of early galaxies.

The telescope has had a troubled history of delays and cost overruns. When its final design was originally unveiled in 2002, NASA estimated that it would cost around $1 billion to fly the spindly telescope in 2010. This was an overly optimistic estimate, with tight budgets and delays continually pushing the launch date farther and farther back. In October of 2010, with a projected final budget of more than $5 billion, a review was commissioned by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and chaired by John Casani of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It concluded that the telescope needed another $250 million in 2011 and 2012 to make its launch date in 2015. The money was not appropriated, NASA could not come up with the needed funds from its existing budget and the launch date continued to slide.

In July of 2011, the House Appropriations on Commerce, Justice, and Science released their budget for 2012, with all of the funding for the James Webb Telescope zeroed out. The fate of the telescope was not mentioned during oral debate in committee, but a press statement released at the same time explained the committee’s decision.

“The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management,” the statement read.

On August 16th NASA announced new budget and timetable estimates for the telescope. The agency put the cost at $8 billion to finish building the telescope by 2018, plus an additional $780 million for the first five years of operation. In addition, in order to minimize any damage to its other programs, NASA announced that the additional funding would be spread around several of its branches, rather than have its science branch absorb all of the costs. As it stands now, about $3.5 billion has already been spent on the project, and about three-quarters of the components have been either delivered or are being fabricated.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science announced on September 14 that it would act to supply funds to complete the telescope. It has several powerful allies in the Democrat-controlled Senate, including Senator Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget.

Other lawmakers, scientists and organizations have come to the imperiled project’s defense. Representatives Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) had also issued statements critical of the funding cut. The American Astronomical Society issued a statement saying that canceling the project would cost more taxpayer dollars than it would save.

The appropriations bill still needs to be approved by the full Senate, and reconciled with the House version.

The New York Times published an editorial criticizing the cancelation in early July. Later, on August 26th, the Times published a letter to the editor written by John Mather, Nobel laureate and the project’s senior scientist, and signed by 31 other Nobel laureates decrying the House proposal.

“Cancellation of the Webb, as a Congressional subcommittee has voted to do, would deal a fatal blow to large and ambitious space science missions for the foreseeable future, and would deny the public access to new and exciting images of the type that have captured the imagination of people of all ages,” the letter read.  

The Wall Street Journal printed a letter by Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University in which he compared the possible cancellation of the Webb Telescope to the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider in 1993. 


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Editor: Alan Chodos