The Senate has "saved" JWST? Hang on a sec, folks…

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2011 8:36 am

Yesterday, the Senate subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, and Science — the group that initially sets the budget for NASA, among other agencies — issued a press release stating that they had produced a draft bill for the fiscal year 2012 appropriations. In the section on NASA, this release stated simply:

The bill provides funds to enable a 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

That sounds great, but what does it mean? A lot of people (judging from reading some blogs, and the tweets and emails I got) seem to think this means JWST is saved and all is well. I’m not so sure. What the press release doesn’t say is where that money will come from. Does this statement mean that the Senate is proposing extra money go to NASA to make sure JWST doesn’t eat into other missions, a scenario that is very likely if that money isn’t found, but instead comes from inside NASA’s budget? I have to wonder, because another statement in the press release says:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is funded at $17.9 billion, a reduction of $509 million or 2.8 percent from the FY2011 enacted level.

I’m never a fan of reducing NASA’s budget, but this is actually less of a loss than I was expecting, so in a sense that’s good to hear. But, again, I must point out that if NASA has less money, how can they afford to finish, launch, and maintain JWST? Especially when they just yesterday announced the design of the new heavy-lift launch system that will, if it goes ahead, become NASA’s main (and most expensive) project?

We need to see the budget breakdown to understand this, but the Senate subcommittee press release is maddeningly vague. Another press release by Senator Mikluski, head of the subcommittee, said:

The bill includes… $5.1 billion for National Aeronautics and Space Administration Science, which includes the full $530 million needed for the James Webb Space Telescope to achieve a 2018 launch.

I’m still not clear on where that $530 million comes from, though; inside or outside NASA. $5.1 billion is more than the FY11 budget (PDF), which is a good sign, but it’s not $530 million more, so unless I’m missing something it looks like the extra money has to come from inside NASA. So on the surface it appears that JWST might be saved in the bill, but it also sounds like it may be at the expense of other missions which might have to take a hit to fund JWST. Until we see the actual bill — which has not yet been released to the public — we can’t be sure.

Apparently there will be more detailed news coming from the Senate possibly later today, and until then I will reserve judgment. Perhaps all is well, and perhaps not. I don’t like basing conclusions on press releases, and hopefully the bill itself will clear this up. I only point all this out because I don’t want to see people saying JWST is saved and everything’s great until we get the actual proof.

Remember too, that this is just a proposed budget. The Senate must vote on it, and then it has to be reconciled with the House bill, and then the President has to sign it. There’s still a very long way to go here.

[UPDATE: Nature News blog makes a very similar point in a post on this.]

Related posts:
The watershed moment for JWST
Hubble’s successor, doomed or saved?
Congress threatens America’s future in space
Congress puts NASA and JWST on the chopping block

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics
MORE ABOUT: Congress, JWST, Senate

Comments (47)

  1. Beau

    The reality of the situation is that EVERYBODY is in a situation where they have to make cutback choices. I’m a teacher, which has historically been a “safe” field to work in with regards to the economy. But every district has had to make choices of where to cut spending, some have chosen to cut teachers, others have chosen to make families pay for bus transportation. The point is that a choice had to be made.

    NASA is not immune to the same situation. I think all of NASA’s scientific pursuits are worthy endeavors, and in a perfect world with unlimited resources I would love for us to explore them all. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and our current economic climate is much worse. With that said, NASA needs to choose what pursuits are the most worthy of their time and money. I believe the JWST is one such pursuit, and it has long term benefits that will impact the science community for years. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of other programs. I’m happy that the JWST has the opportunity to continue on rather than being put to death by politicians.

  2. SkyGazer

    Most important is get it up there. Then it´s simply a matter of outliving it´s lifespan.
    Like those übercheap Rovers on Mars. And the Hubble.
    Just shoot it!

  3. VinceRN

    They haven’t saved it, they’ve talked about saving it. It might be put in there as something to be traded away for some other political priority. I won’t consider it saved until the budget is passed and signed. Even then, a lot might happen in seven years.

    As for the possibility that other NASA projects might be cut to fund it, I hope that doesn’t have to happen, but if it does there are things NASA is doing of much less importance than the JWST. My first proposal for cutting projects would be to hand all the Earth science stuff off to NOAA. Making NOAA 100% in charge of climate change would likely make it easier for them to get funded.

    Yes, NASA could be fully funded by cuts in Defense and/or entitlements that wouldn’t even have an effect on the end products of either, but there is exactly zero chance that any congress would do that, regardless of which party is in charge.

    Were it up to me, NASA would get 1% of the budget as a minimum, then they could do the same political wrangling as everyone else to get more. But I don’t get invited to those meetings.

    A#1 Beau – EVERYBODY except defense and entitlement programs, both of which are growing at astounding rates.

  4. wudisu

    The monies will probably taken from social security, medicare, and military veterans pay.

  5. Gus Snarp

    In this political climate it’s going to be hard not to get some cuts. So they’ve apparently tried to cut NASA’s budget less than expected, and specifically given JWST a raise. So the money clearly comes from both inside and outside of NASA (inside being the cut, outside being the fact that it was a smaller cut). It’s not perfect, but it may be the best we can get. A good question is whether the Senate version results in NASA getting less outside of JWST than the House version. But the bigger question is what version the House and Senate will finally agree to. I heard a story on NPR suggesting that there shouldn’t be any more budget showdowns now that the debt ceiling compromise resulted in all these cuts, but I think that’s a naive point of view that seems to be based on not paying any attention to the Republican party for the last year. So this will be one of the things the Republicans balk on in the Senate bill, and I would not at all be surprised to see another government shutdown at least threatened.

  6. I *think* I see where the “$530M extra” comes from: the House subcommittee proposed $4.5BN for NASA Science Programs, where Mikulski’s PR allocates $5.1BN. So it looks like she is comparing the Senate and House numbers (rather than FY2011).

  7. Sir Eccles

    Simple solution.

    Just redesign the JWST to include solid rocket boosters from ATK.

  8. patrick

    Yea, exactly. I said the same thing on the Universe Today post. Has to survive conference too. Nowhere near out of the woods yet.

  9. Especially when they just yesterday announced the design of the new heavy-lift launch system that will, if it goes ahead, become NASA’s main (and most expensive) project?

    I presume you’re referring to the same thing – the Space Launch System (SLS) – that’s in the BBC world news item linked to my name?

    What are your thoughts on the SLS, BA – can we expect a blog post on that soon, please?

    James Webb Space Telescope~wise; I’m still processing this news and trying to work out what the blazes it actually means in RL as opposed to the Congress dimension. Too late at night now so I’ll sleep on it & hopefully we’ll know more sooner rather than later and, even more hopefully, it’ll be better rather worse implications~wise.

  10. PeedroPaula

    It was unconscionable to retire the Space Shuttle without a replacement vehicle, but it would be even more so to allow Hubble to fail without JWST in place.

  11. Gehackte

    To be honest, I have no idea where Nasa puts all it’s pennies. But I like the telescope, I want to see an exo planet, so whatever. If we see something we like, like water or space elk, maybe people will be more forthcoming with money for future exploration. After all, it could prove it to be worth exploring.

    And yeah I like to know for the sake of knowing, but the average person wants something… like space elk meat. It’s expensive, but man, it’s gotta taste good. Plus by the time it gets here, it should be naturally irradiated, safety first.

    But at the base route, If we find something worth exploring, maybe people will fund bigger and better things in the future. This may provide a reason (space elk just a metaphore).

  12. Elmar_M

    Phil, unfortunately some of the money came from CCDev, which was reduced to 500 million from the requested 850 :(
    Of course they fully funded the pork rocket, SLS (jokingly dubbed the Senate Launch System), despite them finding it necessary to cut NASAs budget.
    This is really bad news for the US manned space programme. The SLS is a huge waste of money. It is a super heavy lifter that will cost a fortune to develop and build and will most likely be cancelled before it will ever fly, because it is way to expensive. The high price also means that there is no money left for missions to the use the darn thing for. Yes there will be the Orion capsule to put on top, but that capsule is not worth much without an earth departure stage and other additional things that you need for BEO missions. Without these things though, you are limited to LEO and why do you need a super heavy lifter to bring a small capsule to LEO? That very capsule can just as well ride on a DeltaIV or the Falcon Heavy once it becomes available. And on top of that a capsule like the Orion is not even needed for missions in LEO. The offerings by the commerical providers are much better suited for that. They can transport more crew and they are cheaper and actually more advanced in some aspects as well.
    To make matters worse, the SLS wont be ready a manned mission until 2021.
    Personally, I would have scrapped Orion and the SLS and put all the funding into science, technology and CCDev and COTs. But of course that would not direct the pork towards companies like ATK, which are important to republicans since it is a defense company (solid rocket engines for missiles).

  13. Chris
  14. Meanwhile in other NASA news there’s this :

    NASA will host a news briefing at 11 a.m. PDT, Thursday, Sept. 15, to announce a new discovery by the Kepler mission. The briefing will be held in the Syvertson auditorium, .. [snip] .. The event will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

    Via Greg Laden’s blog dealing with the Kepler space observatory and possible findings or funding.

    Kepler~wise a good link is here :

    thanks to comment #6 daedalus2u (September 14, 2011 1:53 PM) there.

    Kepler’s website is here :

    for exoplanet hunting robot telescope NOT Johannes of planetary motions laws fame natch! 😉

  15. As Patrick said, the only important vote will be in the conference committee. But if Congress follows recent form, no appropriation bill will be passed, so the only vote that counts will be:

    the Conference Committee on the Continuing Resolution

  16. Steve

    Ah, yes, the good ole press release, wherein a politician gets to claim great deeds done as they save the world! Only when you read the fine print do you realize they’ve done the usual screw-up and they don’t really get it!

  17. Joel

    @13. Gehackte: I don’t claim to fully understand the ins and outs of this whole funding business, but by God, I want to see Space Elk. Now.

  18. CB

    I understand the concern that JWST is going to cannibalize money from other projects if they don’t fund it specifically. And that would be a shame, but the upside of that trade-off is JWST. It sucks to be forced to choose between one science projects and others, but at least the two options are good. And really, it’s not the JWST that is going to cannibalize the other projects.

    The real problem here is the pork launcher. That damn thing needs to go. Get rid of it, and NASA has the money to complete JWST without cannibalizing anything with enough left to spare to do some other stuff. It’s the mandate to keep a couple defense contractors employed that is pitting JWST and other science against each other.

    Stupid pork rocket.

  19. We don’t need the SLS for anything, much less the JWST. What we do need are the funds that would go into the SLS. Science & research, interplanetary robotics, and innovation in orbital spaceflight. These are the things that need funding, and are what NASA does best!

  20. DC Spartan

    I work for an environmental organization in DC as a lobbyist. I don’t specialize in appropriations, but I’m familiar with the process.

    I haven’t looked closely at this, but it sounds like they “plused up” the Science line item; unclear to me whether that came from other NASA programs, or elsewhere within Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill. I’d be surprised if they just added the money into the full cost of the bill, although I haven’t seen the report language (nor have I looked for it.)

    For what it’s worth, there is little/ no expectation that this legislation (which has only been voted on in subcommittee) will come to the floor of the Senate for a vote. This exercise serves as a “marker” for the Senate position.

    It is likely to be folded into an “Omnibus” appropriations bill covering all programs across the board; funding for the current FY expires at the end of the month, and they’re expecting to pass a stopgap measure (called a “Continuing Resolution”) through mid-November when they’ll take up the full version.

    It isn’t until the Omnibus deal is struck that we can know for sure whether the telescope is funded (for the next year.)

  21. Grand Lunar

    It’s possible that other projects, like Earth sciences, may be gutted to fund the JWST (and other things).

    What’s especially frustrating is that the govt cuts NASA’s budget by hundreds of millions, yet has no problem in giving out billions to other pet projects.

    Incidently Phil, I’m surprised you haven’t written about the SLS yet.

  22. MadScientist

    Don’t forget the reduction in expenses due to closing down the shuttle program (I doubt that will amount to $500M though).

    What’s the story with the new heavy launcher? I’m getting conflicting stories from news articles. One article claims that EADS/Astrium will be paying for the development and NASA will just check that their engineers have got things right (which I find very silly because EADS is no lightweight) while other articles suggest that NASA will provide partial funding as in the case of SpaceX and others.

  23. diogenes

    JWST is a long way from being saved and it’s a very open question about whether it SHOULD be saved. The argument most heard among astronomers is “it’s science is better than your science” when talking to the OTHER parts of NASA: heliophysics, planetary science, human spaceflight etc. That’s not an argument that has won them many friends, understandably. In all likelihood the Republicans who voted to kill JWST in the House will fight the Senate version during reconciliation, if only because A) they can and B) they’ll do anything to try to make the present administration look bad.

  24. Christian

    What about all those millions that went into the space shuttle program? Won’t they be free now to use for other programs?
    The Kennedy Space Center FAQ says:

    Q. How much does it cost to launch a Space Shuttle?
    A. Generally, the cost averages out to be about $450 million per mission.

    And there were multiple launches each year.
    So, even with the budget cut NASA should have more money for other programs, right?

  25. Joseph G

    @14 Elmar M: You have no idea what a struggle it is for me right now, to abstain from making an off-color “pork rocket” joke :)

    Seriously though, you seem to know a lot about these projects. Can you tell me why the SLS is so overpriced? I’m looking it up and finding lots of criticism along these lines, but I can’t seem to find the technical reaons for the cost overruns. I only know what’s on the Wiki for it, but the stated goal of re-using Shuttle components sounds cost effective… Any idea where they went wrong?

  26. Joseph G

    Also, to use the “the Senate saved the JWST” line of reasoning, I have saved you all from being shot. By me. I didn’t shoot you, therefore you must shower me with praise for saving your life 😛

  27. Steve D

    “Can you tell me why the SLS is so overpriced?”

    Same reason the Webb is over budget. First, you can’t predict unforeseen difficulties, and anyway, they wouldn’t be budgeted. Nobody ever submits an honest budget figure. Things you want to happen get lowballed, things you oppose, you cite ridiculously high figures. Case in point, Social Security: “We have $60 trillion in unfunded obligations” as if we’re going to get a visit from a bill collector who will demand it all RIGHT NOW.

    Also, there are no rewards for coming in under budget. You can’t roll the savings over into other projects of your own choosing, or use them for bonuses, or get a reduction in paperwork and regulation, or even get a guarantee that your funding request next year will get higher priority. And there are no real penalties for going over. If the CEO of a contractor had to make good on overruns from his own pocket, you bet there’d be better budgeting.

  28. Ronn! Blankenship

    The “pork rocket” is needed for “PIGS IN SPAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!!”

    (I really tried to not post that . . . )

  29. Gary Ansorge

    22. DC Spartan

    Thanks. That’s some useful info on the political process,,,but I still hate politics,,,

    Gary 7

  30. E L

    Northrop Grumman would be happy to continue wasting time and money on JWST. The incompetence there will assure mission failure.. wait and see!!

  31. Alas, ventures which promote scienctific investigations of the type the JWST is designed to carry out are of much less interest to the US government and the US congress than ones which contribute to the prosecution of the country’s interminable wars of aggression abroad. Rather than an important, indeed, vital area of scientific endeavour, space is rather viewed as field over which to gain tactical and strategic mastery – or in any event, prevent others from doing so – part of that «full spectrum» so beloved of military theorists. I’m not sanguine about the possibility of JWST actually launching in 2018….


  32. Henrietta

    I can agree with the “everyone gets cut these days” comments, but the difference here is that things are getting cut to preserve one project that has become a poster-child for gross and repeated fiscal incompetence.

    Yes, the money has to come from somewhere. It isn’t going to come from outside the agency. Let’s look at the Senate bill, just released today, that would “save” JWST.

    The Senate would continue JWST with $530M in FY12. Well, unfortunately, that number is smaller than the average yearly budget that will be required until launch, which is about $700M. So, oops, that means that the next few years will need a LOT more than $530M. $8B development cap, with $3.5B spent, headed for a 2018 launch makes that a simple calculation. So the real pain is just delayed. Hold that thought.

    Let’s look at that $530M. It looks as though the Senate mark for NASA science of $5.1B is larger than the budget proposal. Yay! But that was done by bumping up the budget proposal request for JWST, which was $373.7M. Yes, that means that, in fact, the Science directorate would be left, by the Senate, in the hole for about $70M compared to the budget proposal. You caught that, Phil. $40M of that would come from Planetary Science, and $30M from Earth Science according to the Senate. So one would gather that these cuts are just the beginning of much larger cuts to science to pay for JWST.

    Yes, SLS is a travesty. But if you think that human space flight has less political firepower associated with it than astrophysics, you’re very desperately wrong.

    There were big cuts to the Space Technology line (which is new, and has no protection) in both House and Senate bills, and also some to the commercial space flight line. But there is no reason to believe that those cuts have anything to do with JWST. Those were done to prop up SLS and Orion.

    As JWST needs a lot more money each year (which can be credibly expected, right now), and there are serious pressures on NASA to reduce the total agency budget, we’re looking at a bad scene, especially when the political firepower starts to play out. So yes, JWST has already spent a lot of money. But the question should be asked how much more money we can let it spend before it has to be terminated.

  33. CB

    @ Henrietta:

    It’s not about the political firepower of human space flight vs astrophysics, where sure space flight has more but many think both are useless, and many support both.

    It’s about the political firepower of defense contractors vs those making astronomical instrumentation. Which isn’t even close to a fair fight.

  34. Joseph G

    @29 Steve D: Thanks. So you’re saying it’s a matter of mismanagement and unrealistic expectations?
    Ack. Once again the pesky pessimists are proven right.

  35. Henrietta

    “It’s about the political firepower of defense contractors vs those making astronomical instrumentation.”

    Oh yeah. Like Lockheed, Astrium, and Northrop Grumman (who make two of the instruments and the telescope assembly) aren’t defense contractors. It’s a fair fight if they’ve circled the wagons and are shooting inward.

    No, we’re talking human space flight versus science.

  36. Tom

    I agree with those on this board who’ve called the Space Launch System “The Pork Rocket.” It seems designed just to give big contracts to ATK and the other big aerospace contractors (Please note that these big companies will make out like bandits even if the damned thing never flies once!).

    The SRB’s are an obsolete technology, and a major cost-driver for the shuttle. I’ve read that about a quarter of the cost of each shuttle launch was for the SRBs; I’ve also read that just stacking the SRBs at the Cape for each launch took about 60,000 man-hours.

    If NASA wants heavy-life capability, they can buy it from SpaceX. SpaceX has plans for a new generation of launchers based on an upgraded version of their Merlin engine. SpaceX’s Merline engines are much closer in design philosophy to the old-reliable F1 engines on the Saturn V than to the expensive Space Shuttle Main Engines. Both the Merlin and F1 engines were low-pressure, open-cycle engines as opposed to the high-pressure, closed-cycle SSME’s. ‘Open-cycle’ means the gases running the turbopumps are vented overboard rather than into the engine’s combustion chamber (closed-cycle).

    Also, you can question the need for heavy-lift in a Mars mission. The MarsDrive organization is working on various ‘Mars for Less’ scenarios using SpaceX’s Falcon, Delta or equivalent launchers. Their website is linked to my name.


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