On Monday Aviation Week and Nature reported on the latest cost estimate for building and operating the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST): $8.7 billion. That includes the costs to build and launch the telescope, as well as five years of science operations. That new total figure should not be surprising: last month Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee, said the GAO has estimated the telescope’s cost at $7.8-8.0 billion. Excluding the five years of science operations from the new NASA cost estimate brings the JWST cost back to $8 billion.
So how does NASA propose to cover these additional costs? According to Nature, NASA is seeking to split the costs on a 50:50 basis between the agency’s science account and the rest of the agency. That could mean over half a billion dollars could be taken from exploration, technology, aeronautics, and other non-science programs over several years to cover those costs, should the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approve NASA’s proposal. OMB has been studying the plan for several weeks, according to Nature, but hasn’t signed off on it yet.
Then there’s the issue of winning funding for fiscal year 2012 for JWST, given that the legislation the House Appropriations Committee approved last month included no funding for the telescope. JWST advocates are cautiously optimistic that some funding for the telescope can be restored later in the appropriations process. Representatives of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) met with House staffers earlier this month and found some support for the telescope even from the office of Rep. Wolf. “The staff expressed Rep. Wolf’s belief that JWST has an extremely strong science merit,” the AAS noted in a blog post late last week. “The staff commented that they have been inundated by social media correspondence about JWST and have made note of recent editorials in the NY Times and Washington Post.” Cutting JWST’s budget in committee, the report suggests, was a maneuver to “get NASA’s attention on these broader, Agency-wide management issues at the highest levels.” The AAS statement added that the organization is “hopeful” Congress will work out a deal to fund JWST in 2012.