Lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee recommend an $8 billion cap on the development of the troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program, which covers the latest projected cost to finish and operate the huge infrared telescope.

NASA has estimated that $8.7 billion will be needed to finish building the state-of-the-art observatory, launch it and operate it for at least five years. Amid fears from scientists practicing other NASA-funded research disciplines that the JWST will drain funds from their work, the full appropriations panel followed the lead of its Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee in recommending an appropriation of $529.6 million for the telescope in fiscal 2012.

“As with many other projects, budget optimism led to massive ongoing cost overruns because the project did not have adequate reserves or contingency to address the kinds of technical problems that are expected to arise in a complex cutting-edge project,” stated the subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), in the report accompanying the fiscal 2012 NASA appropriations bill.

With the $8 billion development cap, the panel says it intends to hold NASA and its contractors to that commitment to stay under the latest life-cycle cost estimate. NASA generated the $8.7 billion figure after a Mikulski-ordered review found the telescope far over its previous budget and schedule targets (Aerospace DAILY, Aug. 23).

Overall, NASA would receive $17.9 billion under its Senate spending bill. That is about $1 billion less than the House mark, which means the final figures will be determined in a House-Senate conference committee later on. For obvious reasons, NASA managers want to get as close to the Senate figure as possible.

Adopted Sept. 15, the Senate bill trims $75 million from other science programs, and adds $83.2 million to Webb, to fund the program overrun at $156 million more than NASA requested for fiscal 2012.

Overall, the Senate panel would trim $785.5 million from the agency’s request, bringing in the bill at $17.9 billion. The panel would appropriate $500 million for commercial crew development, down $350 million from the requested amount. Space technology, another program emphasized by the Obama administration, would be trimmed from a request of $1.024 billion to $637 million.

On Sept. 14, just hours before Mikulski’s subcommittee marked up the NASA bill, the White House cleared NASA’s preferred design for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, after a three-month delay. The final Senate Appropriations mark for the big new rocket ordered in the 2010 NASA reauthorization is $1.8 billion in fiscal 2012, under a cap of $11.5 billion. NASA’s latest estimate of the cost to build and fly the SLS by the end of 2017 is $10 billion, but it believes it will take $6 billion to finish an unmanned Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle for the test.

The Senate panel capped Orion at $5.5 billion, and recommended spending $1.2 billion in fiscal 2012. That balances out to the $3 billion in annual spending NASA says it needs to fly the SLS and make the necessary changes in launch infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center.

As the space shuttle era comes to an end, the Senate committee recommended spending $650 million, of which $547.9 million would cover the pensions of shuttle support contractors. The International Space Station, now extended until 2020, would be allotted $2.8 billion for operations.