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Committee Democrats Look Forward to James Webb Space Telescope's Scientific Potential, but Urge Continued Strong Program Oversight

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled "The Next Great Observatory: Assessing the James Webb Space Telescope." The purpose of the hearing was to receive testimony from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and scientific and industry stakeholders on the progress and remaining challenges associated with completing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by the target launch date of October 2018.

As a next generation space based astrophysics observatory, JWST was a top priority of the 2001 National Academies astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, and the most recent astronomy and astrophysics decadal prioritization released in 2010 reaffirmed the scientific importance of the observatory. After years of maturing several critical JWST technologies and achieving the critical design review milestone in 2010--signaling readiness to proceed into development-- the JWST program came under intense scrutiny due to cost growth and other issues. The findings of the Independent Comprehensive Review Panel (ICRP) brought into stark focus a systemic pattern of insufficient program reserves, management challenges, and other issues that led the Panel to an assessment of significant cost growth and unrealistic schedule expectations in the program. The magnitude of the problem was formally reported to Congress in a "breach report" required by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act. The total life cycle cost consistent with a revised launch date of 2018 was set at about $8.8 billion.

Commenting on corrective actions taken by NASA in response to the ICRP report, Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson [D-TX] stated that NASA appears to have developed a plan for getting the project back on track, and Congress has provided the agency with the funding that it has requested for JWST in fiscal year 2012. But she also said that the Committee will need regular updates on this project from NASA so that members can have confidence that its milestones are being met and so that the Committee will have early warning of any problems that may develop. She added "It is very important that NASA ensure that this project proceeds without further turmoil. As we will hear today, the telescope project's cost growth will have a negative impact on all of NASA's science activities--not just those in its astrophysics division. In dealing with the cuts that will be required, I think it is important that NASA allocate the cuts to its science program in a balanced manner that doesn't unduly target any single area, such as NASA's planetary science program."

Congresswoman Johnson highlighted JWST's inspirational value and the importance the observatory will play in generating young people's interest in pursuing the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She stated "There is something at stake beyond the exciting scientific breakthroughs it promises--namely, like the Hubble space telescope before it, it will have the ability to inspire coming generations to dream and to want to undertake careers in science and technology. It's clear that for many of our young scientists- and engineers-to-be, a starry night or a picture of a galaxy obtained from a telescope like Hubble--and perhaps someday from JWST--is the spark that will start them on their way. In the midst of our scrutiny of the issues surrounding JWST, I hope that we don't forget that simple truth."

In his statement for the record, Acting Ranking Member of the Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Jerry Costello [D-IL] reflected on the accomplishments of NASA's astronomy and astrophysics program, stressing that the program has revolutionized our understanding of the origins and evolution of the Universe and has led to scientific breakthroughs of the Hubble Space Telescope and the five Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded to U.S. scientists for discoveries enabled by NASA. Congressman Costello stated that JWST holds the promise of building on these successes and maintaining our ingenuity and scientific leadership, in cooperation with international partners. But he also called for strong program oversight, stating "While JWST holds great promise for the future of astronomy and astrophysics, the project has gone well over budget and is far behind schedule. I am pleased that following stringent review by NASA and third parties, the agency is implementing necessary changes to bring the project back on track. But while NASA and its contractors are moving in the right direction, we must match those technical achievements with real progress on the management and cost control of these challenging projects if we are going to sustain our scientific and technical leadership."

Rep. Donna Edwards [D-MD] said, "The James Webb Space Telescope is an important flagship mission for NASA, the United States, and the international scientific community. Over the past couple of years we have heard concerns about some of NASA's missions but I want to underline the broad support for JWST and NASA's recent success in restructuring and pushing this program forward. I support the changes in the replan and look forward to JWST achieving its milestones over the next several years and the ultimate launch of the telescope."

In their prepared statements, the Chair of the most recent National Academies review of future astronomy and astrophysics priorities and a member of the ICRP both voiced strong support for the continuation of the James Webb Program. Dr. Roger D. Blandford said that "NASA should continue to support JWST because of the insight that it will provide into fundamental, longstanding questions of extraordinary scientific and popular appeal and its capacity for opening up discovery space." Dr. Garth Illingworth stated "JWST will demonstrate our national spirit of doing the very best, and will likewise demonstrate our commitment to our scientific, educational, and technological heritage."

In characterizing his company's response to the ICRP report, Jeffrey D. Grant said in his statement that Northrop Grumman has made significant structural changes, including improved communications and increased frequency of senior management engagements to streamline program decisions. Rick Howard, Director of NASA's, James Webb Space Telescope Program said in his statement that the agency now has a robust new baseline cost and schedule for JWST and that the new baseline provides high confidence that NASA can implement JWST within the resources available in a constrained budget environment and achieve a launch readiness date of October 2018.

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