Obama marks end of shuttle era, urges NASA to 'break new boundaries'
By James Oliphant
July 8, 2011, 12:19 p.m.
"Today’s launch may mark the final flight of the space shuttle, but it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space," the president said. "We’ll drive new advances in science and technology. We’ll enhance knowledge, education, innovation and economic growth. And I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars. I know they are up to the challenge -- and I plan to be around to see it."
Hmmmm, I feel better already. NOT! [apologize for snipping. - LRK -]
Why You Need to Help Save the James Webb Space Telescope
The latest U.S. House of Representatives appropriations bill seeks to cut funding for NASA by $1.6 billion, and in the process eliminate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project. While it is undeniable that the project has had large cost overruns and is behind schedule, it is also very clear that the project will once complete be a tool of enormous worth to the scientific community — and, through them, to the general population — not just in the U.S. but in the entire world.
JWST was supposed to be finished by June 2014 and to cost about $5.1 billion. An independent review panel, however, last fall determined it would likely cost $6.5 billion and not be finished until September 2015. This is of course not a good thing, but it’s nothing new. In fact, there was a NASA project that was supposed to launch in 1983, but didn’t make it into space until 1990, and by the time it launched it had cost triple its original budget — about $11 billion in 2011 dollars. In the 21 years since its launch it has cost many billions more in servicing missions.
I refer, of course, to the Hubble Space Telescope, whose cost overruns were outlined in a General Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office) report in 1992 (PDF). Yes, Hubble has cost the U.S. a substantial amount of money, but its contributions to science have been of incalculable worth: the way we look at the universe has changed in ways we could never have predicted before the telescope’s launch.
And JWST will be a much, much better telescope than Hubble, and not just because it has the benefit of decades-better technology. Not only will it be in a much higher orbit than Hubble, but it will be substantially larger and thus able to collect considerably more detailed and more distant observations. Scientists have some educated guesses as to what kinds of discoveries JWST could make, but it’s very likely that, as it was with Hubble, many things it will find are so revolutionary they’re simply beyond our ability to predict.
Cost overruns and NASA budget cuts have been problems over the years and many of the different NASA mission folks have felt the pinch when funds are moved to cover what is deemed more important. At lot of politics come to play and Congressional Representatives often tell NASA where they want the money spent. Not enough to go around but don't cut the funding to my pet project.
Sean mentioned yesterday that the next generation space telescope JWST is at risk. In a bit more detail, JWST has been cut in the House appropriations bill:
$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.
In all, the House appropriations bill cuts 1.6 billion dollars from the NASA budget. The game is not over yet — the House Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of NASA will consider this bill today, and the full Appropriations committee will meet again to consider the final bill on Wednesday — and of course the Senate will have its own bill. But this is obviously a very ominous sign for NASA astrophysics in general.
JWST is a 6.5 meter IR-optimized telescope, which has been scheduled to launch in 2018. It is certainly true that it has suffered from numerous cost overruns, and has essentially eaten the rest of the NASA astrophysics program. However, nearly all the technical hurdles have now been overcome. And the science reach of JWST is spectacular. It is now the only observatory-class mission planned to operate once the current Great Observatories (Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra) reach their end of life. JWST has been the highest priority for NASA of the Decadal Surveys and essentially every other study commissioned by the field.
Hubble Space Telescope has given us amazing views of the Universe, back to about a billion years after the big bang. However, it has reached its limits there — JWST would allow us to see well into this first billion years, to view the formation of the first stars, galaxies, and black holes, and to study in detail how radiation from these objects reionized the Universe. There are no other planned missions that will allow us to observe this earliest stage of galaxy formation with this level of detail. JWST would also allow us to observe the chemical composition of planets outside the solar system, and to image the disks around stars as they begin planet formation.
James Webb Space Telescope Funding to be Terminated
July 6, 2011
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is close to losing all its funding. The fiscal year 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, being considered by the US government’s House Appropriation Committee (see the release here), is to recommend $1.6 billion dollar cuts to the total NASA budget, with about half a billion disappearing from its Science programs.
Of course, we have to remember these aren’t 100% confirmed, but why announce something so controversial if you’re not pretty sure about it? After all, part of the bill provisions include the prohibition of prisoner transfer from Guantanamo to US soil, so you’d be pretty sure about making statements of that ilk
Perhaps lobbying from the astronomy community will mellow things somewhat, but what are the alternatives? JWST is pretty ambitious (its mirror is too big to be launched fully open, and must be assembled in orbit at L2 to within millimetre accuracy). It’s also about four times over-budget, and behind schedule (note the image says 2013 – current scheduling puts it at 2018). Cuts are required all over the place (NASA’s not the only one to feel the pinch, if you read the rest of the release). As astronomers, we have to ensure that lawmakers understand the associated costs with cancelling JWST.
My feeling is that it would be nice if Congress would agree from the beginning on what NASA proposes and then management follow through to ensure the missions are handled properly and completed instead spending a lot of money and then folding at the last moment for lack of funds. If the mission is worth doing there needs to be enough funds to complete the goal and new technology is often unpredictable in cost.
Also the life of a mission and extended missions require commitment and funding as well. There often are discussions about funding when the life of a spacecraft is better than forecast. I am thinking of the Pioneers, the Voyagers (which have squeaked by), the 90 day rovers that have well exceeded their life expectancy.
- LRK -
Having spent some 20 years inside the NASA fences and having seen the changes that happen with new administrations, I find it hard t get excited about nice words, even if they come from the President. I guess seeing too many missions canceled have just made me a bit bitter. Hope I haven't offended too many folks.
Originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), it was renamed in 2002 after NASA's second administrator (1961-68) James E. Webb (1906–1992). The naming of the telescope honors Webb primarily for his central role in establishing scientific research as one of NASA's core activities.
The JWST will orbit the Sun approximately 1,500,000 kilometres (930,000 mi) beyond the Earth at the L2 Lagrange point. Objects at the L2 point orbit the Sun in synchrony with the Earth, which allows the JWST to use one radiation shield, positioned between the telescope and the Sun, to protect it from the Sun's heat and light (and a small amount of additional infrared from the Earth, also). The telescope will be in a very large 800,000 kilometres (500,000 mi) radius halo orbit around L2, and so will avoid any part of Earth's shadow.[Note 1] From the JWST's position, the Earth will be very close to the Sun's position but not eclipse it, while the Moon will show a tiny crescent phase during its maximum angular distance from the Sun.
The telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket on a five-year mission (10-year goal). The mission had been working towards a launch date in 2014, but during the summer of 2010 an independent review panel determined that 2015 was the earliest possible launch date, and even that would require a significant influx of additional funding. Notably, this review commended the JWST project for being in excellent technical shape with most flight hardware making good progress to completion. The delay and cost overruns are due to an unrealistic original budget and insufficient program management. In response, NASA instituted significant management changes in the JWST project, but the need for increased funding has led to a substantial mission delay. As of June 2011, it appears likely that JWST will launch no sooner than 2017  or 2018. A more specific launch date plan should become determined by the end of 2011, pending the FY2012 US federal budget process. 
When I saw the Presidential Budget Request this year for NASA, I was heartened: lots of money for commercial space transport and science. Obama hasn’t been a vocal supporter of NASA, so it was a relief.
Congress has countered, however. The House just released its Appropriations bill that covers science funding for NSF, NASA, NOAA, and NIST. Almost across the board: cuts. Massive ones.
This bill (PDF) actually keeps NSF at the fiscal year ’11 funding, although that’s $900 million less than the Presidential request. NOAA is being cut $100 million (2.2%), or $1 billion less than requested. NIST: cut by $50 million over FY11 (6.5%), $300 million less than requested.
But NASA is the one where the cuts are nothing short of savage. The cuts total $1.64 billion from last year, which is nearly $2 billion less than requested. That’s a cut of 8.8%. A billion of that is due to the Shuttle retiring, but the galling part is that the House is requiring that all funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, be cut entirely. In other words, they are canceling the JWST program.
To be fair, the JWST project has been over budget, behind schedule, and mismanaged for years. It’s sapped money away from other projects as well. But the reason this is so aggravating is that despite all that the pieces are built and currently being assembled. I’m not sure it’s cost-effective to cancel it at this point; better to put a hold on it, audit the whole thing top to bottom, and re-organize as needed.