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An uncomfortable silence

At NASA meeting, answers to questions about cost overruns on the Hubble’s successor prove difficult to come by

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — How can astronomers advise NASA on how to trim the costs of developing missions if no one will tell them how much the costliest mission of all, the James Webb Space Telescope, is running over budget?

That’s what Alan Boss, chair of the independent NASA Astrophysics Subcommittee, would like to know. When the subcommittee met in Washington, D.C., on September 16 and 17, Boss and his colleagues already knew that the $5 billion infrared space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor now set for launch in 2014, was once again in need of a monetary transfusion.

What Boss wanted to know was how much. But no one in room 3H46 at NASA headquarters was willing to talk dollars and sense — when Boss, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., asked if anyone in the room could cite a dollar figure, his question was met with a silence as deep as any in the vast empty reaches of intergalactic space.

“That’s a lightning rod,” he declared. The subcommittee — and the public — will likely get an answer around October 1, when a study requested in June by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is expected to be released. But the silence in the room doesn’t bode well for what the report will contain, Boss said during a break in the meeting.

The next day Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate, said he didn't know how much more JWST would end up costing, but likened the problem to a tsunami crashing on the shore.

"Let's put it this way,” he said. “It's going to cost more."

Fear of making a huge and embarrassing error like the one that produced Hubble Space Telescope's infamously misshapen primary mirror may be causing JWST scientists and engineers to go overboard and do too much testing, Weiler said. The comprehensive report on JWST due next month, led by John Casani of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will cite instances where engineers on the mission may be overzealous in testing equipment.

Testing costs were the focus of a report posted online September 16 by the NASA-commissioned Test Assessment Team. The report recommended several ways that JWST, which gobbles up about 40 percent of NASA’s astrophysics science budget, could cut costs. But the Test Assessment Team wasn’t asked to determine the dollar amount that the project, which will image small extrasolar planets and look back in time to see the birth of the first galaxies, has exceeded its estimated cost. Nor was it asked it to document how those overruns came to be.

Potential delays in launching JWST, which costs about a million dollars each day it sits on the ground, as well as added costs to several infrared-sensitive instruments, could threaten funding for NASA’s newest big-ticket space telescopes and other projects recently recommended by the National Research Council in its 10-year plan for astronomy, NASA officials have acknowledged.

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