5:29am

Thu September 1, 2011
Business

Boulder Aerospace Co. Wary that Budget Ax Could Scrap Hubble Replacement

The James Webb Space Telescope is intended as a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, but it’s become a target for federal budget cutters. KUNC’s Erin O’Toole talks with Boulder County Business Report publisher Chris Wood about the project and the role of Boulder’s Ball Aerospace.

O’Toole: Chris, the James Webb Space Telescope project has been under way for a number of years. Why is it a target now for possible budget cuts?

Wood:It’s kind of made itself a target, Erin. As originally conceived, the project was intended to cost $3.5 billion dollars and was expected to launch in 2007. By 2008, when the project was still not complete, the price had jumped to $5 billion, and then to $6.5 billion in 2010. Just this week, the price was revised to $8.7 billion, with a 2018 launch date.

Those sorts of cost overruns and project delays have made it a natural target for cuts, as Congress struggles to rein in the country’s trillion-dollar-plus budget deficit.

O’Toole: Boulder-based Ball Aerospace has a significant role in the Webb project. What exactly is Ball working on, and how would any killing of the project affect the company and Boulder?

Wood:Ball is operating as a subcontractor for Northrop Grumman and is providing an array of 18 lightweight beryllium mirrors, which - at 6.5 meters - are more than three times the size of the Hubble system but lighter. The mirrors that Ball is designing have to operate at temperatures as low as minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

The impact on Ball, if Congress were to kill the Webb, is really unclear. Ball won’t reveal how much money it has received from the project, nor how much it is contracted to receive overall. But a company official did tell our reporter, Jeff Thomas, that Ball’s portion of the project is already 85 percent complete.

The official did add that the Webb is expected to yield “unprecedented advancements in our understanding of the universe, and that the company would certainly be disappointed if it didn’t launch.”

O’Toole: Well, speaking of that - what’s really the purpose of this project? We’ve all seen images sent by the Hubble Space Telescope. How will the Webb differ?

Wood:The Webb will be orders of magnitude more advanced than the Hubble, which is near the end of its life. NASA says the Webb will see in infrared and will be 100 times more powerful in its light-gathering abilities. Supporters say that the power of the Webb will enable scientists to see farther back in time, essentially, helping to answer important questions about the origin of the universe.

O’Toole: So where does the project stand now? How much danger is it in?

Wood:A NASA official described this as a very serious funding situation. The U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee has targeted the project for elimination in its proposed 2012 NASA funding. The full House and the Senate, of course, have yet to take action on the cuts.

Meanwhile, NASA is fighting hard to preserve the project. They’ve suggested in recent weeks that the project overruns would be spread across all of its divisions. And they’re pointing to all the work that’s been done on the project. The NASA official told us that, overall, hardware for the project is 75 percent complete by mass, with more complex instrumentation nearing completion, but with heat shielding and other, heavier aspects of the spacecraft, still in development.

O’Toole: Is there any way to gauge whether support in Congress will be sufficient to preserve the project?

Wood: It’s very difficult to say. The Webb certainly has a lot of Congressional support. This project is being developed in many different states, and even internationally. But Congress right now is under great pressure to reduce the federal budget deficit, so no one is assuming that continued funding for the Webb is a given.

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