The real Webb telescope, by contrast, will have clocked more than 30 years from conception to orbit, if it launches as scheduled in 2018.
This is astronomy’s big, generational gamble, designed to peer back to the dawn of time, spy the first stars and galaxies, and search for signs of life on distant exoplanets — all feats the Hubble Space Telescope can’t manage.
At a time when NASA is searching for a post-shuttle identity, the agency has made the Webb a top priority. But on its way to the heavens, the Webb has run wildly over budget, drawn threats of cancellation from Congress, elbowed aside other NASA science missions and driven a wedge through the space science community.
Its fate for now rests on negotiations between NASA’s chief purse holders in Congress, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). Mikulski, the telescope’s staunchest champion, chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of NASA’s budget; Wolf holds the parallel position in the House.
Fed up with Webb’s escalating costs, Wolf zeroed out in July Webb’s funding in NASA’s 2012 budget, and that’s how the House passed the spending bill.
Wolf has now softened. “I want to be able to fund the Webb,” he said of the telescope named for NASA’s second administrator. But first, Wolf wants to know how NASA will pay for the telescope’s cost overruns.
On Sept. 28, he asked the Office of Management and Budget for a list of NASA cuts to pay for the project, now priced at $8.7 billion. The office has yet to answer.
In the Senate, Mikulski countered by seeking $530 million for the Webb in fiscal 2012.
“I was able to persuade my committee and the Senate to fund the James Webb telescope,” Mikulski said Wednesday at the Maryland Science Center. “And I will tell you that next Tuesday, the Senate will pass a federal budget that will put in $500 million to put the James Webb telescope into space, into the science books, into the history books and secure America’s place in astronomy for the next 50 years.”
Mikulski touted the telescope as a job creator. Of the 1,200 jobs NASA says the project creates across 24 states, about 500 are in Maryland, home of the Webb’s operations center, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
If the Senate delivers, Wolf and Mikulski will hammer out the budget in conference committee.
“I think the Senate and I will be able to work it out,” Wolf said.
But if Congress provides less than the $530 million that NASA says the project needs next year, the schedule will slip further and costs will continue to rise.
In 2006, NASA estimated that Webb would cost $2.4 billion and could launch in 2014. In 2008, the price tag rose to $5.1 billion. A congressionally mandated report released last year found that NASA had underestimated costs and mismanaged the project. This summer, NASA said it had already spent $3.5 billion on the project and needed a total of $8.7 billion to launch in 2018.