Senator Mikulski on the Outlook for Webb Space Telescope and NASA

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Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is one of the most powerful Members of Congress in the annual appropriations process.  She chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as its subcommittee having jurisdiction over NASA.  Mikulski gave an upbeat report to NASA employees earlier this month about funding for the agency and the James Webb Space Telescope.

Mikulski spoke at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt MD to mark the delivery of all of the telescope’s eighteen primary mirrors and its four science instruments.  The telescope will be assembled at Goddard by 2016 for a scheduled 2018 launch.  Appearing with Mikulski was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden who commented that “the recent completion of the critical design review for Webb, and the delivery of all its instruments to Goddard, mark significant progress for this mission.”

As is true with many cutting-edge scientific instruments and facilities the telescope has had its challenges.  Appropriators have paid much attention to the Webb’s construction schedule and cost, resulting in a July 2011 decision by displeased House appropriators to terminate funding for the telescope.  Later negotiations between House and Senate appropriators kept funding in place and a new management team was installed.   Progress on the telescope continues to be of concern to the appropriators, with Mikulski telling Bolden at a key hearing last April “I’m afraid that the James Webb overruns could begin to eat NASA alive.”  Bolden assured Mikulski and House appropriators at a hearing the following week that the telescope was on budget and schedule.

Mikulski spoke of what she said was the lack of stewardship and oversight in Webb’s previous management when she addressed Goddard employees and private contractors on February 3.  She stressed that it was important to keep the telescope on budget since it is a highly visibility target for Members of Congress advocating dramatic cuts in federal spending. 

“We actually got it done” Mikulski said, as she quickly moved to praise a bipartisan budget deal developed in late 2013 by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) that was approved by both chambers.  This agreement set total discretionary spending levels for this (FY 2014) budget year, and FY 2015.   Once the FY 2014 level was set Mikulski and her counterpart, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) crafted individual appropriations bills that were passed in a single omnibus bill in mid-January. 

As a result of this agreement, “we actually have certainty in the budget,” Mikulski said, adding “there will be no more government shutdowns, there will be no more furloughs . . . or sequesters” in this year or in FY 2015 (starting on October 1.)  Approximately 97 percent of NASA employees were furloughed in 2014. 

Mikulski spoke of how she and her counterpart, Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) worked to protect the NASA budget.  Mikulski highlighted the $23 million increase in funding for the space telescope for this fiscal year for a total of $658 million.  In all, NASA received $17,646.5 million which is 99.6 percent of the Administration’s request of $17,715.4 million.     Looking ahead, Mikulski predicted that the completion of the Webb telescope will “absolutely secure our lead in astronomy for the next 50 years.”


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