Astronomers fret over Webb Telescope's future

House panel threatens funding for costly project

October 03, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Congressional wrangling over the future of the overdue, over-budget James Webb Space Telescope has split astronomers in a struggle over billions in funding.

Astrophysicists worry that action in the U.S. House to eliminate funding for the Webb project, which already employs hundreds of people in Greenbelt and Baltimore, would extinguish a century-long quest for knowledge about the origins of the universe, just as it seemed to be headed for new triumphs.

"The project is the core of astronomy; not only astrophysics, and not just in the U.S., but in the world," said astrophysicist Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Canceling the project, he said, would lead to "a 20-year setback in astrophysics."

"It's that serious," he said.

Planetary scientists, on the other hand, fret that an effort by NASA and Webb boosters to save the orbiting observatory with still more infusions of cash will siphon federal dollars away from their own programs, such as the robotic exploration of the planets.

The estimated total cost of the Webb project, from design through five years of orbital operations, has ballooned from $1.6 billion as proposed in the 1990s, to $8.7 billion in the latest estimate. About $3.5 billion has been spent so far, 20 percent of it paid for by European and Canadian space agencies. The launch date has slipped seven years, to 2018.

Even after his House subcommittee "zeroed out" Webb funding in the House version of NASA's budget in July, Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia insisted it's never been his goal to scuttle the project.

"I don't want to kill James Webb," said Wolf, chairman of the subcommittee. "I think the James Webb is very important. … I think it will be resolved."

But Wolf said his panel intended to send a message. He said he believed that NASA's top officials were "hiding" cost overruns and launch delays from his subcommittee, and that they still haven't said which programs they propose to cut, or "offset," to keep Webb afloat.

Wolf says his subcommittee has other agency budgets to worry about, such as the National Science Foundation and the FBI. Together, those agencies are allocated $546 million less in the Senate version of the 2012 budget than in his House version, while Webb gets a $41 million raise to $530 million.

"I can't fund just James Webb and nothing else," he said. "We're waiting for answers from NASA."

Scientists have named the Webb telescope as the top priority in their last two "decadal surveys" — a "to do" list drawn up by consensus every 10 years. It would be bigger and 10 times more powerful than the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, able to see more of the earliest stars and galaxies, in greater detail.

The American Astronomical Society warned in July that killing the Webb "would waste more taxpayer dollars than it saves, while simultaneously undercutting the critical effort to utilize American engineering and ingenuity to expand human knowledge."

The 6.8-ton observatory is designed to fly a million miles from Earth, unfold its 21-foot-diameter mirror, open a sunshade the size of a tennis court to cool its infrared sensors to minus-387 degrees Fahrenheit, and go to work.

The telescope has strong Maryland connections. Its science operations will likely be managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which has been doing the same for Hubble since 1990. The Webb project employs the equivalent of 140 full-time employees at the institute, a number that would grow to 275 after launch, a spokesman said. An additional 200 people work on Webb at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Astronomers hope the Webb's giant mirror and its view of the universe in infrared wavelengths will reveal some of the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang, perhaps Earth-like planets circling in the dusty disks around nearby stars, and much more.

By all accounts, the telescope itself is in good shape. Its optics are complete and ready for testing, said Eric P. Smith, deputy director of the Webb program at NASA headquarters. Its scientific instruments will arrive at Goddard next year for integration and testing. And a contractor in Huntsville, Ala., is testing a mock-up of the observatory's sunshade.

The Webb's woes are rooted, instead, in its budget and its management.

After Wolf's House Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies deleted ongoing Webb funding for 2012, the project found friends in the Senate's counterpart subcommittee. On Sept. 14, they provided $530 million in the Senate version to keep Webb moving toward a launch. That was $41 million more than it received in 2011, and about $150 million more than the Obama administration had requested.

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