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House Science Committee Hearing Highlights Concerns About Webb Space Telescope

Richard M. Jones
Number 6 - January 17, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“In my view, NASA’s latest replan for the James Webb Space Telescope is the agency’s last opportunity to hold this program together,” said House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) at a hearing last month.  Hall’s comments reflect the dual message coming from this hearing: continued support for the telescope with concern and occasional outrage about its growing cost.

Evidence of this support was Hall’s declaration to his colleagues and the four witnesses testifying at this hearing. “I support the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST].  The science enabled by this mission will be extraordinary” he said, reaffirming the outcome of the final FY 2012 appropriation for JWST.  NASA requested $373.7 million for the telescope; the final bill provided $529.6 million.  House and Senate negotiators included extensive language in the conference report on the telescope, including provisions “strictly limiting JWST formulation and development costs to the current estimate of $8,000,000,000.”  The increased FY 2012 funding reflects this year’s allotment to deal with “an increase of $1,208,000,000 over the previous lifecycle cost estimate” for the telescope.

In her remarks, Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) touched on the same points, but also raised the issue of how the higher cost estimate for JWST would affect funding for other NASA programs: “It is very important that NASA ensure that this project proceeds without further turmoil.  As we will hear today, the telescope project’s cost growth will have a negative impact on all of NASA’s science activities -- not just those in its astrophysics division.  In dealing with the cuts that will be required, I think it is important that NASA allocate the cuts to its science program in a balanced manner that doesn’t unduly target any single area, such as NASA’s planetary science program.”

Four witnesses testified at the one-hour, forty-minute hearing, including Richard Howard, the Director for NASA’s JWST Program.  After thanking the committee and Congress for its support, he got right to his key point: “We at NASA recognize that we made your already difficult task of funding important programs in these distressed fiscal times even more difficult because of our poor past performance on JWST.  We are thus even more determined to restore your confidence in NASA by delivering a successful JWST on the new cost and schedule baseline that we have developed.” 

The other witnesses took a similar approach of acknowledging past management shortcomings and assuring the committee that the project was now under much tighter control.  Stanford University Professor Roger Blandford, Chair of the 2010 Committee for a Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics, told the committee “JWST promises to be a scientific ‘game changer” adding “JWST is now much better understood than it was a year ago and I am optimistic that it will be able to launch on its new schedule.” Jeffrey Grant of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems offered similar assurances. 

University of California – Santa Cruz Professor Garth Illingworth agreed, and offered a detailed diagnosis of JWST’s past problems.  He stressed the importance of funding, in particular project reserves, telling the committee in his prepared testimony “Adequate reserves in every year are then not just desirable, they are essential if the project is to be completed within cost and to schedule.”  Reserves are needed when unexpected issues are encountered, Illingworth explaining “This is not a reflection of management incompetence, management inexperience, poor oversight or lack of independent assessments.”

Committee members expressed keen interest in avoiding further cost overruns or delays.  Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) asked about project milestones that the committee can use to determine if JWST is on track.  Howard told her that nineteen of twenty-one FY 2011 milestones have been met or are on schedule.  One milestone was delayed because of weather conditions and another deferred for a design change.  In FY 2012 there are 37 milestones, including the delivery of all four science instruments that will be integrated and tested.  Mirror testing should be completed within the next few months.  Sunshades to shield the telescope have been completed.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) were by far the most critical of the project’s management, with Rohrabacher asking Howard several pointed questions about what programs would be impacted.  Howard explained that half of the additional $156 million over the President’s request for FY 2012 will be taken from other science programs, and the remainder from cross-agency support activities.   Rohrabacher asked about the status of a number of programs, with Howard explaining that some had already been moved back on the priority list, with others being reviewed.  Rohrabacher was not pleased, charging NASA had glossed over incompetence and mismanagement.

The hearing concluded because of a roll call vote on the House floor.  There are two take-away messages from this hearing, best made by Chairman Hall and Professor Blandford:

Said Hall: “Congress’ tolerance for these types of over-runs has run out.”

Concluded Blandford: “In summary, launching and operating JWST would be scientifically transformational, internationally inspirational. It would also make a powerful statement that the United States still has the resolve to execute large, technically challenging and innovative scientific projects. No other country currently has this capability.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics