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

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Sept. 15 2011 8:36 AM

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

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.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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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.]




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