After months of accusations of mismanagement and gross overspending on a space telescope set to replace the aging Hubble and Spitzer, the U.S. House of Representitives Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee has proposed a budget for 2012 that would cut NASA’s budget.
The highest profile casualty (so far) is the multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which was called out explicitly in the proposed Appropriations Bill announced today:
NASA will receive funds of $16.8 billion for the next financial year, which is $1.6 billion below last year’s level and $1.9 billion below what the White House requested. The kicker is that this reigns in NASA funding to pre-2008 levels.
The science media focus will likely remain on JWST, however, a joint project between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The complex infrared telescope — the components of which are currently undergoing advanced space worthiness tests — is designed to see deeper into the Universe than the 20-year-old Hubble.
Sitting in the Earth-sun L2 point (a location 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth’s surface, constantly in our planet’s shadow), JWST is designed to see the most distant objects in the Cosmos, 100 times fainter than Hubble could spot, imaging the earliest objects that formed shortly after the Big Bang.
With JWST budget excesses and overruns, an independent task group was set up to find out where the problems were. In November 2010, they found that due to management issues, the JWST would need a further $1.5 billion and an extra year than planned before it could be launched. This would put the launch date back to 2015. Budget worries in April pushed this estimated launch date back even further, to 2018.
It seems the Republican-led Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee is now recommending that the $3 billion already spent on the JWST should simply be written off as a bad idea.
Obviously there is cause for concern when the management of a $6.5 billion space telescope is being cited as the main culprit for the project’s demise, and other NASA projects have suffered as a result of a redirection of funds to JWST, but scrapping this ambitious project is a very short-sighted solution. Years of work and billions of dollars of NASA funding has already been sunk into getting the telescope off the ground.
That in itself is not a good enough reason to finish a project, but considering JWST will be as revolutionary as Hubble, investing more funds accompanied by a management overhaul (a solution that has already been enacted by NASA) would make more sense, right? After all, NASA doesn’t get the cash returned from canceled missions to be spent on other fun spacecraft.
Alas, political points-scoring is usually more important than critically analyzing the scientific merits of continuing with “expensive” missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope. And sadly, NASA has to make do with the shrinking budget it’s given; there’s no government bailout plan for space agencies.
Now we’ll have to wait until the Senate, White House and the full House of Representatives have weighed in on the federal budget before it is passed as law. Only then will JWST’s fate be sealed.
Image: JWST’s prime mirrors undergoing tests (NASA)