The Sciences

Congress puts NASA and JWST on the chopping block

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJul 7, 2011 10:00 AM


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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. JWST has been a real problem, but it will also be one of the most spectacular observatories ever built. A six meter mirror in space tuned for infra-red observations, it will see farther and in more detail than any space telescope ever built. It will see galaxies when they were first forming, it will image planets orbiting distant suns, and will map our Universe like never before. At this point, canceling it means billions of dollars will be thrown away, when the cost to complete it is far less*. Since this is a House budget bill, I called my Representative, Jared Polis, and left him a message. I also tweeted him:

A little while later, he replied:

How cool is that? So I thanked him:

... and I retweeted his tweet. I noticed a while later several of my followers had tweeted their Reps, too. I don't recommend communicating with your own Congresscritter only this way; emailing or a phone call in addition is better. If you feel strongly about this, please contact him or her. As I understand it, the bill will get out of the subcommittee today and probably go to the full Appropriations Committee next Wednesday. The Senate will create its own version, and then the two bills will have to be reconciled before going to the President to sign. Canceling JWST may just be saber-rattling, but either way contacting your Rep is a good idea. We have a long way to go here; this is just the opening salvo. Other people have written about this as well, including: Julianne at Cosmic VarianceRisa at Cosmic VarianceAmanda BauerThe e-astronomerSean Carroll at Cosmic VarianceSarah AskewSpace NewsThe New York Times Read those sites to get more info. And stay tuned; if this goes to vote I'll have more info as it comes in.

^* The JWST situation is similar to the Constellation rocket program which was also over budget and behind schedule. In that case, I supported the cancellation because it was still early enough in the project to actually save money, and it was unclear the rocket would work as promised. JWST is almost done, and is expected to surpass Hubble in many ways.

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