Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said Wednesday she expects the Senate will pass a budget bill on Tuesday that will include $530 million to continue work toward launch of the Webb Space Telescope in 2018 "and secure America's place in astronomy for the next 50 years."
Speaking at a ribbon-cutting for a new Webb Telescope exhibit at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, the Democratic senator added that she hopes to have the funding bill "on the president's desk to be signed into law by Thanksgiving."
But an aide acknowledged later that Mikulski's counterparts in the Republican-controlled House still have not included continued Webb funding in their chamber's version of the budget bill. The differences must still be worked out in conference committee.
The troubled Webb project has seen its cost estimates balloon from $1.6 billion in the 1990s to $8.7 billion, and its launch delayed by seven years.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, chairman of the House counterpart to Mikulski's Senate subcommittee, which oversees NASA's budget, said this month he doesn't want to kill the project. But he insisted on more fiscal transparency and more data from NASA on Webb's problems. "We're waiting for answers from NASA," the Virginia Republican said.
Wednesday's ribbon-cutting was a kind of pep rally for Webb and space science. Like the new permanent exhibit itself, it was sponsored by Northrop Grumman — the lead contractor on the project — and attended by three Maryland Nobel laureates in physics. They included Riccardo Giacconi, who won in 2002; John Mather (2006) and the 2011 winner, Adam Riess, co-discoverer of dark energy, a mysterious force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe.
Also on hand was John Grunsfeld, deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore who is a former NASA astronaut who flew on three servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Mikulski acknowledged that the Webb project "has not been without issues." But, she added, "we have been able to solve those issues. … We have a greater sense of frugality, and we've been able to reform the [NASA] management system. We think we've got the Webb on track."
"You're going to be really shocked to hear me say this, but I want to thank the tea party," she said. "They really brought to America an awareness that we've got to really look at the money, and we have to follow the money to make sure we get value."
But she insisted that Webb is worth the billions being spent on it. Designed to be 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope, it is expected to reveal the universe as it was when the first stars and galaxies appeared, and their subsequent evolution, and enable the study of planets circling other stars.
The project also employs 1,200 people in five countries and 24 states, at 87 companies and nine U.S. universities. Mikulski said she has stressed to her colleagues in Congress that space science is a vital engine for the economy's scientific and industrial bases.
Grunsfeld agreed: "Science is what drives innovation, drives the economy, drives jobs and furthers our knowledge of the universe," he said. "Supporting science always seem to be a hard battle in tough economic times."
Riess said Webb is vital to the future of U.S. leadership in astronomy and physics. Americans "have won the lion's share of Nobel Prizes in physics and led some of the greatest facilities. I'm very excited for us to retain that leadership. Once you lose it, it really changes things."
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