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Webb telescope caught in budget bill’s crosshairs

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The final launch of the space shuttle is set for later this week. But NASA’s most important astronomy mission suddenly seems in danger of never leaving the ground.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), already in serious trouble on both sides of the Congressional aisle because of cost overruns, would be canceled, if a Republican-controlled House subcommittee has its way. That committee, which is responsible for spending at agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation, todaytabled its draft legislation for the 2012 fiscal year. The documents aim to chop nearly 9% from NASA’s 2011 budget, a significant fraction of which would be saved by canceling the JWST. In an accompanying release, appropriators called the project "billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.”

The draft bill still has to be voted on by the subcommittee, the full committee, the full House, and then reconciled with the Democrat-controlled Senate – a long drawn out process which will offer lawmakers many opportunities to rescue the project. But the move comes as a shot across the bow for JWST and a warning sign of budget battles to come.

In the draft legislation, NASA is allocated $16.8 billion for 2012, $1.9 billion below the president’s request and $1.6 billion below the enacted 2011 spending levels. Some of that cut isn’t so painful – legislators expect to save $1 billion in retiring the shuttle. But the bill would trim $431 million from NASA’s science budget compared to 2011, mostly by shelving JWST.

Scientists at the NSF wouldn’t fare much better: the bill freezes spending at the 2011 enacted levels of $6.9 billion, some $900 million below the president’s request. The bill also keeps an amendment that forbids NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy from pursuing bilateral activities with China unless so authorized by Congress.

A markup is scheduled for Thursday, when amendments to the bill are debated, followed by a subcommittee vote, which usually occurs along party lines.

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