Cost of the planned James Webb Space Telescope, shown here in an artist's… (Northrup Grumman Corp. )
Reporting from Washington — The cost of NASA's two flagship programs — a new space telescope and its next rocket — is poised to devour much of the agency's shrinking budget in coming years, putting at risk many smaller efforts such as developing futuristic spacecraft and returning rocks from Mars, scientists and congressional insiders warn.
At a time when budgets are being slashed throughout government, price estimates for the James Webb Space Telescope and NASA's new rocket and crew capsule have increased by billions of dollars or are at risk to do so, according to internal NASA documents and external evaluations.
The Webb telescope, a high-tech successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, once was expected to cost $3.5 billion and launch this year. Now, the estimate is $8.7 billion, with a 2018 launch date. And NASA's proposed Space Launch System and Orion capsule, capable of taking humans to the moon and beyond, could run the agency at least $32 billion over the next decade, a figure that auditors caution could go much higher.
The trend has alarmed astronomers and others, who worry that less-visible projects — such as robotic Mars missions and various space probes — may be sacrificed.
"So, we have one giant money sponge (JWST) already sucking up dollars with yet another money sponge (SLS) on the drawing board. Since the money simply is not there to do either project to begin with, trying to do both of them together will devour funds from smaller NASA programs," wrote Keith Cowing in a recent post on his influential blog NASA Watch.
Heightening concern is the new focus in Congress on spending cuts, leading many to think that NASA's 2010 budget of $18.7 billion won't be repeated. The White House already has asked agencies to submit 2013 budget requests that are 10% below their 2011 levels, essentially a $1.85-billion cut to NASA.
"That would be huge," said Richard Anthes, co-chairman of a National Academies panel that sought to prioritize Earth space science missions. He said he worried that the number of Earth science missions would decrease from about 20 now to about five in 2020 because dying satellites that measure such things as winds, atmospheric pollution, ocean currents and salinity won't be replaced, or their successors will carry fewer instruments.
"We've gone from guarded optimism … to a lot of pessimism," Anthes said.
Earlier this year, the Webb telescope project was expected to cost about $375 million annually, but then the overall price was bumped from $6.5 billion to $8.7 billion. Investigators last year found that NASA had managed the project poorly and had significantly low-balled the cost of launching a telescope with a 21-foot mirror to a position about 1 million miles from Earth.
The overruns have drained NASA's science budget and contributed to the cancellation of two joint missions with the European Space Agency: one that would have studied super-massive black holes, the other a mysterious cosmic force known as gravitational waves.
"James Webb is the next-generation space telescope and will be marvelous if it ever gets built — but that's the question," said Dan Britt, a professor at the University of Central Florida and incoming chairman of planetary sciences at the American Astronomical Society.
Britt, like many scientists, does not doubt the potential of a telescope designed to find the earliest galaxies in the universe. But he and others are concerned that Webb's cannibalization of NASA's science budget could kill any chance of bold new projects, such as a mission to return soil samples from Mars.
For its part, NASA officials said that no decision had been made on how the Webb telescope's latest overruns would affect other programs. Spokesman Dwayne Brown said those changes would be reflected in NASA's 2013 budget request, due for release early next year.