Troubles Surface for Webb Telescope

In the blur of astro-news from last week — the deaths of two prominent astronomers, fabulous Comet Hartley 2 results, asteroid dust inside Hayabusa, and a planet from another galaxy — we couldn't quite get to an important story involving Hubble's eventual replacement: the James Webb Space Telescope.

Webb telescop in orbit
Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope in orbit.
NASA
The JWST effort has been under way in earnest since 2002, when NASA managers selected TRW as the project's prime contractor and renamed the spacecraft (formerly the Next Generation Space Telescope) to honor James E. Webb, the agency's second administrator. The plan was, and is, to place a giant space observatory far from Earth (to minimize interference) and give it a primary mirror 21 feet (6.5 m) across — more than seven times Hubble's light grasp — to probe the visible and (especially) infrared universe as never before.

Back then, rosy announcements predicted a total cost of around $1 billion and a launch sometime this year.

If only! Along the way, reality set in. By 2005 the construction cost-to-launch estimate had ballooned to $2.4 billion, and the debut had slipped to 2014. That's where things stood until this year, when an Independent Comprehensive Review Panel took a hard look at the numbers. The bottom line is that JWST's total cost to launch and operate is likely about $6½ billion, $1½ billion more than NASA budgeted. Moreover, the earliest possible launch date is September 2015.

Given that construction is so far along, you've got to wonder why NASA misjudged things so badly. You would think that the agency had learned its lesson building the Hubble Space Telescope, which was supposed to take just four years to assemble when construction began in 1979 but ended up taking 11 years to reach space. The loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 didn't help, but the HST project had numerous problems of its own making.

So what went wrong with JWST?

According to the review panel's final report, NASA officials made two "fundamental mistakes" when the project underwent a major Confirmation Review in July 2008. First, the panel found, "the Project Budget presented for Confirmation was not based upon a current, bottom-up estimate of projected costs." Second, project managers failed to factor in — and provide funds for — development problems that were likely to occur.

Hubble and Webb mirrors compared
Measuring more than 21 feet (6.5 m) across, the primary mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope will have a diameter some 2½ times that of the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA
Even to meet a 2015 launch date, NASA will need to pump an additional $250 million into the project's budget in fiscal 2011 and 2012 — funds that the agency isn't likely to get from Congress. If forced to find that money internally, the agency will likely have to cancel or defer other space-science programs already under way.

Perhaps more urgently, the panel recommended that NASA administrator Charles Bolden yank project management from its Goddard Space Flight Center and instead run the effort from a dedicated office at the agency's Washington headquarters. Bolden, in response, supported the panel's findings and is appointing a new JWST program director.

The news isn't all bad. The review panel found the technical state of the project to be sound and its scientific goals intact. Money spent to date hasn't been wasted, it noted in an Afterword, and "no technical constraints to successful completion have been identified." Once in orbit, the Webb telescope is expected to have the ability to look back 13½ billion years, to when the universe was just 2% of its current age and the first galaxies were forming.

Click here for a good technical overview of the telescope's construction and here for the project's website.

10 thoughts on “Troubles Surface for Webb Telescope

  1. George Anderson

    What went wrong?

    It is disingenuous to claim the the project estimate was not based on current numbers or that the plan was not built from bottom up. These are standard project formulation steps for Approval. This appears to be just another instance of the method long used by DoD to get approval of projects. State a low number and then ask for more when too much has been spent.

  2. B J Higgins

    FYI to George – it’s not just DoD, it’s all government projects. And projects are almost always under-estimated to get past that first budget hurdle in Congress. The idea is that at least getting something started at the earliest possible time actually does save money in the long run – as long as the project can demonstrate some good return on the investment. Unless the project is one of Congress’ favorites, it will struggle for funding its entire duration. Plus, as has been demonstrated by NASA, a string of failures means cuts.

    It’s often unfortunate for the scientific community, especially in cutting edge development: very often the estimators must rely on guesswork regarding the timing, availability and expense of emerging technology – and within another guess-timate of the future economy. Just look at the economy over the last ten years – the initial Webb Telescope proposals were put forth in the 90s; ie, pre-9/11 and the global fall-out of that event.

    I just hope that the current strain on the budget doesn’t result in the abandonment of this and other R&D efforts. That’s short-term thinking, but that’s also life in the US budget.

  3. Jon Savelle

    The development and cost woes of the JWST are remarkably similar to those of Hubble, with one monumental difference: Once launched, JWST will be on its own. No servicing missions or upgrades are possible. Given that such missions made the difference between success and failure for Hubble (remember the faulty primary mirror?), there is a large chance that a component failure will end the JWST mission prematurely.

  4. David Watts

    If Congress is as smart as it believes itself to be (which has never been the case), it would place management and construction of the JWST in the hands of private industry and get it out of the huge government bureaucracy known as NASA. Even though private contractors can be guilty of fraud and waste, they come more often from lack of the government’s oversight and long-range responsibility to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. NASAs management capability was derailed by the Challenger disaster and has never been on track since.

  5. Michael C. Emmert

    I think the problem over the years has been irresponsible politicians promising that they can lower your taxes. That can’t be done without lowering your services.

    New Horizons came in on time and within the budget. JWST is considerably more expensive and project managers succumbed to the temptation to make it appear less costly than it was. That is not what should be done. State what it will really cost.

    I think that a lot of people are afraid that New Horizons, which is now on the way, will be recalled because it has been discovered that Pluto is not a planet, after all it was sold as “the first mission to the last planet”. I bet Congress wouldn’t dare hit the “off” switch, that’s paranoia.

    They’re not going to hit the “off” switch on this, either. People hunger for knowlege. Scientists need to realize this, there’s a bit of elitism. That’s best expressed by the fact that all the science-fiction stories about the first trip to the moon prior to Apollo 11 never envisioned worldwide television coverage.

  6. Ralph L

    “Even though private contractors can be guilty of fraud and waste, they come more often from lack of the government’s oversight and long-range responsibility to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. ”

    Heck, even WITH the fraud and waste of private contractors, it would still be faster & cheaper than getting the government to do it.

  7. Mike C.

    The only time government wastes money is when congressional interference forces it to contract out to the private sector. The private contractor has to make a profit, government does not. Top salaries in the private sector are 10 to 100 times to that of the government. Sometimes there is bad management in a project and that costs, but it is nothing compared to what happens at the top in the contracting companies. Just look at the mansions outside of the beltway, your tax dollars at work.

  8. Lenny

    This is typical of government programs and especially NASA programs. As a former 39 year NASA employee I can attest to the fact that over the years it has taken longer and longer to complete a mission from design to launch. Three things are constantly at work here. First is the way programs are funded by Congress. NASA applies for the funds to do the project and the government appropriates the money as part of NASA’s budget…then a year or two later cuts the project funding to spend the money some place else. Just look at how the Shuttle program was managed from beginning to end.
    Second is the number of people managing and overseeing the project. This has grown seemingly exponentially. The more “fingers in the pie” the slower the project runs toward completion. Everybody has to have their say in the program. We’re talking not only government managers but contractor managers since most of NASA’s hardware is built by private industry.
    Third is the requirement that everything used in the project has to have a pedigree…what it was made of, how it was made, who supplied it when it was purchased and so on. I often thought the paperwork would outweigh the satellite by several tons.

  9. Frank Mondana

    This is not a NASA-only issue. I work in a field that designs, engineers and builds “1-off” projects. While we don’t have the complexity of shooting our stuff into space we deal with the same fundamental issues.
    When doing a project that is not going to be mass produced or “off the shelf” parts can be used, costs always skyrocket. Many of the projects we do even require specialized hardware. This makes a 50 cent bolt become a $200 bolt. Why? Because that bolt has to be engineered and tested so insure it’s performance matches its requirement. The bolts you get at Home Depot are already engineered (and have been for decades), the manufacturer has had the tools to make that bolt for decades and they make a million of them very year.

    It’s these design and engineering costs that make budgets quadruple (or even more). The people that do the budget and bidding usually expect most of such parts will be off the shelf. Many of these bean counters have never built anything in their lives and know nothing of real world costs (yes, this is stupid but true.

    Usually, by the time the plans get into the hands of managers and fabricators that know what reality is, it’s too late. The project is a go.

    I could go on for many MANY pages detailing this but will spare everyone the boring details. It is unfortunate how prototypical design/engineer/build projects go. When you throw in red tape stupidity, it gets even worse.

    Do any of us learn from this? Yes. Unfortunately the people involved at the very beginning never do learn or flat out lie just to get the project in the door and hope to make up the difference in change orders and up charges.

  10. space hitchiker

    The added cost is created due to the traceability requirements. The added paper trail is what your paying for. For example the material has to be traceable to ensure the material of the bolt is ‘pure’-also many of the bolts used are not available at HD-i.e.; Titanium -to save weight. Overall cost savings to a project is best achieved by simplifying the SC design for ease of access (which reduces the need for complicated ground equipment). Ground processing and the addition of requirements and instruments is always irresistible-since its still on the ground.

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