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Budget pessimism may drive JWST launch date to 2018

Posted: April 13, 2011

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Struggling to match schedules with bleak funding realities, NASA and contractor officials say launch of the troubled James Webb Space Telescope could be delayed to 2018, four years later than the date NASA publicly pronounced last fall.

Artist's concept of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA
Testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee Monday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency is still completing a bottoms-up assessment of the next-generation space observatory before announcing a specific launch readiness date and cost projections.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., asked Bolden how much money is needed to put JWST back on track, saying lawmakers need realistic numbers to incorporate into the federal budget process.

Mikulski is the chair of the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"We honestly do not think that we need money in fiscal '11 that will allow us 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 Senate Appropriations Committee's panel in charge of NASA spending.

Mikulski, whose state includes the headquarters for the JWST project, questioned the wisdom of ignoring the Casani report's recommendation for more funding.

"I'm ready to be frugal, but I don't want to be foolish," Mikulski said. "Because if we skimp now, we then end up paying two or three times (more) later, and that's what I don't want."

Developed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. With a 21.3-foot-diameter primary mirror, the telescope is designed to peer back in time almost to the Big Bang, giving astronomers a glimpse of infant galaxies as the universe cooled after its formation.

In a report on NASA's JWST project management practices, an independent review panel said in November that the James Webb telescope needed an extra $500 million over the next two years to have a chance of launching by the end of 2015.

But that money's not available in the 2011 budget and is unlikely to be there in 2012.

"We right now are looking at how much (money) we need to add for 2012," Bolden said.

The White House's fiscal year 2012 budget request in February called for flat spending on JWST over the next five years. But that spending plan is subject to consultation with Congress and the results of the ongoing program review within NASA.

Nicknamed the Casani report after its chairman, the independent board concluded last year that JWST was based on a flawed project budget that led to inadequate funding reserves to address mounting delays and technical snafus.

Richard Howard, JWST's newly-appointed program manager, said in February the launch of JWST was likely to be pushed back to 2016, or even later, due to overall federal spending cutbacks.

File photo of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA officials were pessimistic then about receiving the funding boost recommended in the Casani report, and as the likelihood of extra money drops, the telescope's probable launch date has continued to slide later in the decade.

Before the Casani report's release in November, NASA officially forecasted JWST would blast off in 2014. In the five months since the panel issued its findings, NASA managers' unofficial statements have moved JWST's launch four years later.

NASA is completing a thorough assessment of the program before announcing JWST's official revamped schedule and budget. Bolden told the Senate subcommittee NASA hopes to finish a draft baseline assessment by the end of April.

"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 for the foreseeable future. We are working up a baseline, and there will be some additional spending that will be required, but we have not arrived at that."

The Casani report said JWST was making steady technical process despite the budget issues. Nearly 75 percent of the telescope's hardware is currently in production, according to Scott Willoughby, JWST's program manager at Northrop Grumman Corp., the observatory's prime contractor.

"The hardware is getting ready," Willoughby said Wednesday. "It's just a matter of how much funding we get in each fiscal year. The more money we get, the more stuff we'll do."

Northrop Grumman oversees an array of subcontractors building the telescope's mirrors, composite structure and other components.

Facing tight funding over the last several years, Northrop Grumman has prioritized development and construction work to focus on the most complex and costly systems first.

"If we hold to the 2018 (launch date), and that's still in work with the various funding scenarios, that would mean we'll have seven more years of work to do," Willoughby told reporters in a press briefing. "We would do that in an incremental fashion and finish up work on one thing, then move on to another."

One big-ticket item has been the building, polishing and testing of JWST's 18 primary mirror segments, a complicated system that must be perfectly smooth and operate at cryogenic temperatures as low as -390 degrees Fahrenheit.

JWST's mirror segments have already been through the Marshall Space Flight Center for a first round of tests. After more polishing, the mirrors will return in 2011 and 2012 for final checks in cryogenic conditions. Credit: NASA
Six of the mirror segments will begin final cold-temperature testing this week at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the last step in construction for those beryllium gold-coated mirrors. Two more sets of six segments will be tested at Marshall's cryogenic chamber through early 2012, Willoughby said.

With such a high volume of work left to go before launch, there's not enough money to simultaneously go full-speed ahead on all JWST's major hardware.

"We're building a box, a mirror, a composite tube, a membrane," Willoughby said. "We're in the parts phase now."

Willoughby argued against scaling back JWST's lofty science goals and stringent operational constraints, an idea being considered to streamline test campaigns and move up the mission's launch.

"There's a point in time where it gets more expensive to descope than to keep on going because you have to consider architecture and design changes," Willoughby said.