NASA head visits Baltimore to show off Webb telescope

A full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope, the tennis-court-length receiver that will be assembled in and operated from Maryland, is on display at the Inner Harbor through Oct. 26.

"Webb will find the first galaxies in the universe," said NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. at the unveiling at the Maryland Science Center on Friday. The orbiting telescope, recently at the center of budget battles in Washington, will be the "most powerful that NASA has ever built," he said.


The Webb mock-up on the brick walkway between the water and the museum will offer a first glimpse of the next generation of space observation, tangible evidence of the project that has fueled debate on Capitol Hill.

The project was proposed in the 1990s at a cost of $1.6 billion. The telescope's price, from design through five years of operation, has increased by more than five times. The "total life cycle" cost of Webb, said Bolden, is now expected to reach $8.7 billion.


The telescope launch date also slid seven years. Bolden said the telescope is on track to be sent into space in 2018.

In July, the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees the space agency's funding eliminated money for Webb in the House version of NASA's budget.

The head of the subcommittee, Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, told The Baltimore Sun last month that he was concerned NASA was not being forthright about the cost increase for the project and the launch delay. Nor has NASA proposed program cuts to keep the telescope project funded, Wolf said.

In September, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, head of the Senate counterpart committee, provided $530 million for the project, but reduced NASA's overall budget.

Bolden said Friday he does not intend to cut any single program to make sure that Webb proceeds as planned. Instead, NASA is working with the White House to provide Wolf and his subcommittee with a list of cuts across the agency, he said.

"We didn't want to reward Webb by killing a program that was doing well," said Bolden, who became the head the agency about two years ago. The cuts would be proposed from both the institutional and science sectors of NASA, he said.

The cost overrun and the delay was largely the fault of overloading one division of NASA with responsibility for the infrared receiver, Bolden said. Since taking charge of the agency, he has divided management and financing of the telescope among multiple departments, he said.

"We did a replan for the further development of the telescope," said Bolden. "It's not fair to put something [of this magnitude] on one division. … [We need to be] spreading costs across the agency."


For Maryland, hundreds of jobs are at stake. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore will likely manage Webb's science operations, as it does for the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb will be assembled at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"NASA has always been an engine for economic growth and job creation," Bolden said. "Webb is no exception."

The model at the Inner Harbor shows the telescope's large mirror that will capture infrared signals from deep space. Because the Webb telescope will be gathering heat signals — not visible light, like Hubble collects — it will be important to keep the mirror cold to reduce interference.

The mirror is situated along a five-layered shield, measuring about 80 feet by 40 feet, that will keep the sun's heat off the receiver.

"You can think of the sun shield like a big beach umbrella," said Mark Clampin, a NASA project scientist on the Webb project. Infrared images will be collected on a memory device in the telescope and will be downloaded to an Earth-bound command center twice daily, he said.

Infrared signals will not be obscured and blocked, as is light, by space dust. That change will mean Webb can see deeper into space than Hubble, scientists say.


"In terms of looking back at the beginning of time, Hubble's reached its limits," said John Mace Grunsfeld, deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute and an astronaut who has space-walked three times to fix and update the Hubble telescope. "It is the Hubble 2.0."