A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to Hubble. Over budget and behind schedule, it's in serious trouble. The House side of Congress essentially canceled it in their version of the Federal budget, but in the Senate version they put enough money in the budget to keep JWST alive. The two different budget versions will have to be reconciled before they go to Obama to sign. As I said in that article above, I wasn't clear on where the money the Senate put in the budget was going to come from.
I'm not the only one: Frank Wolf (R-VA), who is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing JWST's budget (through NASA), has publicly asked the same question. As I read this, he is doubling-down on the House threat to cancel JWST:
For us to make a truly informed decision that takes into account both the value of JWST and the value of opportunities that may be precluded by the JWST replan, we must have the [budget] offset information. If such information is not provided by the time that conference negotiations begin, I will consider that to be an indication that JWST is no higher in priority than any other existing or planned NASA activity.
In other words, he wants to know what other programs will be cut to fund JWST. This information was not in the press release by the Senate when they announced they were funding the observatory, and it's critical. Will NASA have to take this blow, or will it come from outside NASA, from other agencies or departments?
I have long supported JWST -- I was marginally involved with the mission back when it was still unnamed and the instruments hadn't even been proposed yet -- but that support is contingent on the idea that it will be built with minimal impact to other important (I dare say vital) NASA missions. My fervent desire is for NASA to get enough money to fund everything they are doing and want to do; we're talking exploration of our Universe here, something I have in one way or another dedicated my life to supporting. But that sometimes means making hard decisions, and we're facing one right now.
Republicans hold the House majority, and they are in turn being pushed by the Tea Party, who want to cut huge amounts of government spending (well beyond what's safe or wise, in my opinion). In that sort of environment, the odds that NASA will actually get more money seem slim. And that means JWST, which is a huge chunk of NASA's budget, is in a very precarious position.
The House and Senate will have to hammer out their reconciliation very soon, and I'm hoping the Senate will have more details on where this money to fund JWST will come from. With other critical government expenditures facing the ax, there's going to have to be some very serious negotiations over very serious matters. Which side of the line will JWST fall?
Image credit: NASA