James Webb Telescope Project On Track: NASA
December 7, 2011

James Webb Telescope Project On Track: NASA

NASA on Tuesday vowed that its James Webb Space Telescope project will be on track to launch in 2018, despite several delays and billions spent in over budget; the total projected cost is now at $8.8 billion.

The project, which aims to build the world´s most powerful telescope that will be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble space telescope, has been riddled by setbacks and cost overruns. The project has been under threat by a Congressional subcommittee, looking to shut down the project earlier this year as lawmakers struggled to find ways to reduce the $15-trillion national deficit. But, Congress has since agreed to NASA℠s budget needs for the project.

Even with the project receiving the go-ahead, NASA´s new JWST program manager, Rick Howard, faced rancorous questioning on Tuesday from lawmakers in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Committee chair Ralph Hall described the project as “another case study of NASA mismanagement” and said the NASA reshuffle was “the agency´s last opportunity to hold this program together.”

“We have changed the management, the priority and the approach,” Howard told the committee hearing. “We can deliver JWST within costs.”

NASA inspector general Paul Martin in February told lawmakers that JWST was heading way over budget and would most likely cost about 6.5 billion dollars, $3 billion more than the initial budget.

The timeline for a launch has also been pushed back several times. JWST was planned for a 2013 launch, but now will be ready no earlier than October 2018.

The new $8.8 billion figure, funds the project for two decades, which began in 2003, and will  include five years of operation once the telescope is built. Nearly half of that budget has already been laid out for technology and development of the JWST.

It has been nearly a decade since the astronomy and astrophysics community recommended the James Webb Space Telescope to succeed Hubble, which has been in operation for 20 years now. JWST will be a 6.5-meter foldable telescope -- roughly the size of a typical classroom. It will be more than six times the area of the Hubble mirror. It is named after James Webb, head of NASA from February 1961 to October 1968. JWST will answer new questions far beyond the capabilities of Hubble.

NASA started working on the JWST project soon after the recommendations were made, along with partners from Canada and Europe. Today, more than 8 years in, about 70 percent of the telescope is already made or in fabrication. If no other budget shortfalls or timeline setbacks occur, JWST should fly in late 2018.

With an important mission such as JWST, the US will be able to continue its international leadership in science and technology. Other countries, including China and India, are investing substantially in these areas as well, and a larger portion of their college students now major in science and engineering. Failing to complete JWST would send a strong signal to the world that the US is stepping away from the forefront of science. It would also disappoint international partners that have put in significant time and energy in the project.

Scientific discovery has been an important part of our national economy. The report, “Gathering Storm,” from the National Academies, warned that US science, technology, engineering and mathematics need to be strengthened to ensure a good economic future. Even in a time of fiscal austerity, the US needs this next-generation space telescope.

But lawmakers are concerned about how NASA would be able to maintain JWST once it does go into operation.

Republican lawmaker James Sensenbrenner asked how the US space agency would carry out any repairs on the telescope, recalling how the orbiting Hubble needed numerous service missions by the space shuttle program, which retired this year.

“We don´t have the shuttle anymore. What is going to happen if we need to repair the James Webb Space Telescope or if we find out some the parts were not properly done?” he asked.

Howard said that NASA was already in the process of testing and checking the mirrors at operating temperature, and noted that the telescope´s path would take it beyond where the world´s spacecraft have the capacity to carry humans, anyway.

“We know that we only have one chance to get this right,” Howard said. “It is not going to be in orbit around the Earth, it is going to a distance four times further away than the moon. So we are taking every step we can to mitigate the risks to make sure that we do have a system that can work.”

“You've just increased my skepticism given the history, and I have been on this committee longer than anybody else,” Sensenbrenner answered. “I can see another money pit coming up.”


Image Caption: NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six flight ready James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror segments are prepped to begin final cryogenic testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. This represents the first six of 18 segments that will form NASA's James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror for space observations. Engineers began final round-the-clock cryogenic testing to confirm that the mirrors will respond as expected to the extreme temperatures of space prior to integration into the telescope's permanent housing structure. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham


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