How do you pay for JWST?

The cost increases and schedule delays associated with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have become a major concern in the scientific community and beyond, as best illustrated when the House Appropriations Committee offered no funding for the program in its FY2012 appropriations bill, which is currently pending consideration by the full House. Although the Senate has proposed $530 million for JWST in its FY12 appropriations bill, there is still the open question of how NASA proposes to cover the costs of JWST over the long haul, through its planned launch in 2018. One member of Congress is now openly looking for answers. In a letter Wednesday to Jacob Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, wants answers from the administration on its plans for paying for JWST. "While acknowledging that substantial cuts will be necessary, the Administration has so far failed to identify a single specific proposal to offset the increase in JWST spending above the levels contained in the President's fiscal year 2012 request," he wrote, referring to cots in other NASA programs to cover the costs of JWST. "Either no offsets have been proposed because JWST really isn't a top priority, or the Administration is hoping that remaining silent will force Congress to act unilaterally and thereby take sole ownership of the cuts necessitated by the Administration's actions." To emphasize his concern, Wolf scrawled below his signature on the copy of the letter the words, "This is very important." NASA has started to identify where those funds would come from. In a webinar last week by the Space Telescope Science Institute that covered both the scientific potential of the program as well as its management, project officials discussed their current plans for covering the project's costs in 2012 and beyond. "The replan is on track to support the '13 budget process," Rick Howard, program director for JWST at NASA Headquarters, said. "All the details will be rolled out in February [2012] when the president's FY13 budget is released." Howard said that JWST needs $1.223 billion above the administration's budget projections for the program (about $355-370 million per year) from 2012 through launch (now planned for October 2018, or the beginning of fiscal year 2019). That includes an additional $156 million in FY12. Half of that money, he said, would come from NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), although earth science programs would be exempt from any cuts. The other half comes from "agency institutional support", a reference to the Cross-Agency Support line in the budget, which is about $3.2 billion in FY12. The specific programs in SMD and Cross-Agency Support that would lose money "is still being worked," he said. Likewise, he added, finding the additional money needed in FY2013 and beyond hasn't been determined. In the meantime, JWST is still something of a punching bag for people who want to criticize cost overruns on NASA programs or government programs in general. "Right now, as all of you are probably aware, there is considerable pressure on Congress to be a better steward of the people's money," Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) said in a luncheon speech Wednesday at the AIAA Space 2011 conference in Long Beach, California. "This means we need to figure out a way to end the days of overbudget and underdelivery. A perfect example of that is the James Webb Space Telescope." Citing the cost growth in the program, he blamed "a government-wide acquisition problem that couples unrealistic government specifications with overpromising by industry." Ironically, Calvert made the comments at a luncheon sponsored by Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for JWST; all the luncheon attendees received a tote bag emblazoned with an illustration of JWST.

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