AAS Informational Email 2011-08: Recent Policy Activity on James Webb Space Telescope and Pu-238

Status Report From: American Astronomical Society
Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2011

AAS Informational Email 2011-08

Subject: Recent Policy Activity on James Webb Space Telescope and Pu-238

Bethany Johns, John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow and Kevin B. Marvel, Executive Officer


Two important FY 2012 appropriations bills for astronomy and astrophysics have been working their way through the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill:

House Approved Energy and Water Funding Bill for Fiscal Year 2012 (H.R. 2354) on July 15, 2011, which provides annual funding for Dept. of Energy Office of Science and Nuclear Energy.

Appropriations Committee Approves the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill on July 13, 2011 which provides annual funding for the Departments of Commerce and Justice, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF).

These two bills are where astronomy and astrophysics receives the majority of federal funding for research and development. However, the approval of these budgets by the House is but the first step in the appropriations process, which involves both the Senate and, ultimately, a conference between the two houses of Congress to arrive at a final appropriations bill.

Significant proposals included in these bills, namely the termination of the James Webb Space Telescope and reduced funding for the production of plutonium-238 compared to the presidential request will, if ultimately passed into law, have a negative impact on astronomy and planetary science research. The AAS has been working with policy makers to ensure these impacts are minimized or do not take place.

This Informational Email provides some detailed background information on the current situation. When the direct input from AAS members is needed, meaning, when such grassroots input is likely to produce a change in policy, we will reach out to the astronomy community through an AAS ACTION ALERT. Please pay close attention to these messages, as they indicate when your input is highly useful and important. The Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP) and the AAS Executive Committee pay close attention to the policy situation in Washington and, with the help of the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow, Bethany Johns, stay informed on a daily basis as events take place and formulate strategy and actions to influence the process. Ultimately, the AAS President and Executive Committee act on behalf of the AAS Council on most issues, with input and guidance from the CAPP. Such actions are consistent with the AAS Mission and seek to support the Decadal Survey recommendations as published or revised through subsequent National Academies action.



On July 6, the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies posted a press release and the draft bill language for FY2012 appropriations on their website stating:

"The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management." (

The detailed report language, which accompanies the straight-forward bill text, was posted a few days later. According to the report:

"James Webb Space Telescope. -The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Independent Comprehensive Review Panel revealed chronic and deeply rooted management problems in the JWST project. These issues led to the project cost being underestimated by as much as $1,400,000,000 relative to the most recent baseline, and the budget could continue to rise depending on the final launch date determination. Although JWST is a particularly serious example, significant cost overruns are commonplace at NASA, and the Committee believes that the underlying causes will never be fully addressed if the Congress does not establish clear consequences for failing to meet budget and schedule expectations. The Committee recommendation provides no funding for JWST in fiscal year 2012. The Committee believes that this step will ultimately benefit NASA by setting a cost discipline example for other projects and by relieving the enormous pressure that JWST was placing on NASA's ability to pursue other science missions." (

Because of the magnitude of this proposed cancellation, the AAS quickly released a strong statement on the importance of the JWST on July 7. The report was quickly publicized through various media outlets and communicated to policy makers. Other statements of support for JWST have come from Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the Canadian Astronomical Society (CASCA), the JWST Advisory Committee (JSTAC), and other professional organizations.

The Association of Universities for Astronomy Research (AURA) is keeping a list of statements supporting JWST and their links:

During the full Committee markup on July 13, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) offered an amendment to restore $200 million in funding for the project in FY2012 by transferring the funds from NASA's Cross Agency Support budget, for which the bill allocated approximately $3 billion. Unfortunately, the amendment was defeated. More details may be found via AIP's FYI email alerts at

However, during the introduction of the markup, Rep. Wolf, the chair of the appropriations committee and the source of the original proposed language, said, "We want to do it, but we want to do it in the right way." Wolf said he would work with Ranking Minority Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) on the telescope as the bill moved ahead.

The bill will now move to the House floor. Rep. Wolf said he hoped it would be on the agenda before August recess. Rep. Wolf has been a strong champion for science for many years, and yet he is clearly frustrated with the management of the program, leading to this proposed cancellation. Although the magnitude of the proposed cut and the importance of JWST led many to begin grassroots efforts to get the funding restored, it is clear that grassroots input will be more meaningful a bit later in the process. Rep. Wolf and Rep. Fattah are highly likely to work out a deal to restore JWST funding before the bill goes to the House floor, perhaps involving enhanced language spelling out detailed project oversight requirements. The AAS is pursuing a strategy to directly encourage a solution in the House during floor debate by working with key individual legislators and to secure support from the Senate to restore funding in the Senate version of the FY2012 appropriations.

Meanwhile, on the same day as the markup, the NASA Advisory Committee for Astrophysics met. Rick Howard, the JWST program director, spoke on the current state of JWST. NASA has completed almost all of the recommendations of the Independent Comprehensive Review Panel and the JWST is scheduled to launch in 2018. A re-plan and bottom-up cost review have been completed. It is clear that the project is ready to move forward and has few hurdles remaining to reach completion. It is believed that the re-plan effort will be made public when the President's FY2013 budget is released in February of 2012, although it may also be released early given the enhanced visibility of the program resulting from Rep. Wolf's proposed termination of the program and references to poor project management.

When it is particularly effective for AAS members to write or contact their members of Congress, we will issue an Action Alert. Action Alerts should be read carefully and acted upon expeditiously. We only send them when the action of our members will have a direct and positive impact.


The AAS has also been working extensively with the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the American Physical Society (APS), the Association of American Universities (AAU), as well as our own Division of Planetary Science (DPS) on the issue of restarting the domestic production of Pu-238.

Restart of Pu-238 production is of critical importance to the development of planetary science missions. There is no viable alternative way to power deep space missions, as solar panels cannot produce enough electricity when far from the Sun. If Pu-238 production starts immediately, there will still be a 5-year delay to have enough Pu-238 for a spacecraft power system. Full scale Pu-238 production is unlikely to be enabled until 2018, which is too late to meet all of NASA's needs. The delay will push back the proposed planetary space missions that require Pu-238. The delay could cause missions to reach prohibitively high costs, which in turn could bring about job losses, diminish the United States leadership role in planetary science, and prevent us from expanding human knowledge of the universe.

In the President's FY 2012 Budget Request the Dept. of Energy, the producer of Pu-238 and other radioactive materials, and NASA, the primary user, agreed on a $20 million cost-sharing program to get begin the restart of production.

We have made many visits to the Hill and have gained support in the CJS appropriations of a $10 million appropriation for NASA, but are still working on support for the $10 million in E&W appropriation for the Dept. of Energy.

Rep. Schiff offered an amendment to fund production of Pu-238 in the full committee markup and on the House floor, but neither amendment had a majority vote. The House E&W bill passed the floor without $10 million for Pu-238 in DOE Nuclear Energy. Details on the full committee markup and floor amendment can be found at ( and (, respectively. H.R. 2354 will now go to the Senate for consideration.

The House CJS bill has $10 million for NASA to restart domestic production of Pu-238: "Plutonium-238.-The bill makes available $10,000,000 from this account, as requested, to restart production of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238), a radioisotope that is an essential source of electrical power for long-range planetary science missions. The Committee urges NASA to work expeditiously with the Department of Energy to bring Pu-238 production back online as quickly as possible while simultaneously pursuing Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator technology that will allow NASA to make better, more efficient use of available Pu-238 stocks." (

We are currently working on shoring up support in the Senate E&W Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Feinstein (D-CA). Sen. Feinstein has NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in her state of California. JPL has built and sponsored many planetary science missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory scheduled to launch this November.

The next step in the process is for the Senate to consider the appropriations bills proposed by the House and develop their own versions. The AAS is working closely with key senators to ensure the funds for the restart of production are made available. If the input from AAS members becomes clearly valuable in this process, we will issue an AAS ACTION ALERT and ask that all astronomers act quickly when they are received.

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