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NASA Blood: Congress Wants To Kill James Webb, Hubble Space Telescope Successor

It's nice to think that the current U.S. House of Representatives crop--repping hard Christian fundamentalists and corporations, mostly--is the last gasp of the Republican party, but it's more likely it'll be remembered as another footnote in the last...

by Michael Byrne
Jul 7 2011, 8:56pm

It’s nice to think that the current U.S. House of Representatives crop—repping hard Christian fundamentalists and corporations, mostly—is the last gasp of the Republican party, but it’s more likely it’ll be remembered as another footnote in the last chapter of American innovation. To wit: today the House released its 2012 appropriation bill for Commerce, Justice, and Science, or at least the very first version of it. (“It” being how money is allocated among those three things.)

In the bill, NASA takes a $1.6 billion hit from last year, and is also $1.9 billion below President Obama’s request. The total allocation is $16.8 billion. If that seems like a lot, consider that the Department of Defense is looking at almost $700 billion in allocations. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Standards and Technology takes a $49 million hit to leave $701 million. And the National Science Foundation gets $6.9 billion, almost a billion below President Obama’s request.

The most striking thing in the bill, however, is that it kills entirely funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, e.g. the successor to the soon-to-retire Hubble, one of the most vital scientific tools in history. JWST will be able to see objects 100 times as dim as those seen by Hubble and three times as clear; it will allow us to see the very first galaxies in the universe, just a few hundred years after the Big Bang. The answers it offers are spectacular and attainable.

"JWST will lay the foundation on which a better understanding of the early universe will be built," says American Astronomical Society President Dr. Debra M. Elmegreen in a statement. "It has the potential to transform astronomy even more than the Hubble Space Telescope did, and it will serve thousands of astronomers in the decades ahead. We cannot abandon it now."

The AAS statement, released this afternoon, continues:

The JWST's completion, launch, and operation will unveil new knowledge about the earliest formation of stars and planets and on a wide range of additional advanced scientific questions, including many not yet formulated. As was true with the Hubble Space Telescope, recognized as a tremendous success by the public, scientists, and policy-makers, building the most advanced telescopes comes with the risk of unexpected costs and delays. However, the whole Nation can rightly take pride in the engineering and scientific accomplishment that the completion and launch of such instruments represents. With the help of important international partners, we are the only nation that could lead such an effort; we should not shirk from completing the project when the most difficult engineering challenges have already been overcome. As stated in the Casani report, an independent review of project readiness completed late last year, "The JWST Project has made excellent progress in eveloping the difficult technologies required for its successful operation, and no technical constraints to successful completion have been identified." The mirrors stand ready and waiting for integration into the spacecraft. The telescope has passed both preliminary design review and critical design review. It is time to complete construction and look ahead to JWST's launch and science operations.

The house appropriations committee cites budget overruns and mismanagement for the proposed cancellation. Of course, like it has now twice with high-energy physics projects — the work of the non-starter superconducting supercollider and the soon-to-be defunct Tevatron being done by the LHC — Europe will pick up our slack in the odd chance that the provision survives to be passed into law. Which it almost certainly won’t.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.