It will be the largest telescope ever launched into space, with a mirror that has about six times the light collecting area of Hubble’s. When
the James Webb Space Telescope flies
later this decade, its unparalleled infrared vision will record the flickers of the
first stars and galaxies to light up the
universe, in a mission that promises to
rewrite astronomy textbooks. But for
now, the 6.5-ton observatory has become
a financial albatross for NASA.
An independent investigative panel
reported in November that the telescope,
known by the acronym JWST, is running
a minimum of $1.4 billion over budget (SN
Online: 11/11/10). That overrun, which
would bring the total cost of building
the telescope to at least $6.5 billion, may
lead to the cancellation of another highly
touted NASA mission to probe the nature
of dark energy and extrasolar planets.
Convened at the request of U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, the panel found
that managers for the James Webb
project, based at NASA’s Goddard Space
Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., consistently underestimated the cost of the
telescope. Lack of money in one year
forced scheduled work to be deferred to
the next, a practice that kept contractors
on the payroll longer and ended up doubling or tripling the cost of their labor.
Poor cost management and reporting
practices went unchallenged by NASA
staff in Washington, D.C., reflecting
Billions of dollars
“the lack of an effective cost and
programmatic analysis capability at
headquarters,” the panel concluded.
But the problem appears to go beyond
mismanagement. Interviews with
current and recently retired NASA officials, astronomers and the Government
Accountability Office reveal a culture
of deception when it comes to estimating the cost of large NASA missions.
Given the limited supply of money for
new projects, those with proposals are
encouraged to underestimate the true
price tag, and those who question the
estimates are ignored or reprimanded.
“It’s a game of you lie and I’ll swear to
it,” says Michael Griffin, NASA’s adminis-
trator from April 2005 to January 2009.
“The whole community talks itself into
unrealistic cost estimates.… Everyone
knows it’s wrong. Every engineer knows
it’s utterly without foundation, but
engineers aren’t making the decisions.”
Big agencies such as NASA, says Griffin,
need to find a way to carry out major new
endeavors without disrupting the whole
system: “How can an executive branch of
a democratic government do a bold new
thing like JWST when the competition for
the dollar is so intense that people with
otherwise good will and good character
will basically lie to get what they want?”
Jon Morse, director of NASA’s astro-
physics division, based in Washington,
D.C., which until recently oversaw the
telescope, says that the problems are
not about any one person or individual.
“This was an agency failure in cost per-
formance and government and contrac-
tor coordination,” he says. “NASA is
disappointed to have not maintained the
level of cost control the agency has been
striving to achieve on all of its projects.”
Genesis of a problem
Some of the lowballing on JWST costs
goes back more than a decade, when the
project was still just an idea.
In the mid-1990s, Alan Dressler of the
Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena,
Calif., chaired a committee charged with
recommending a successor to the Hubble
Space Telescope. He and his colleagues
settled on a 4-meter infrared space observatory that could look further back in
time and space than Hubble’s 2.4-meter
mirror, perhaps to find the most distant
galaxies in the universe and trace their
origins. Dressler’s panel believed that a
4-meter telescope was the biggest that
could be constructed on a budget limited
to about $500 million.
In the fall of 1995, Dressler briefed
NASA’s administrator at the time, Dan
Goldin, about the report. In January
1996, Goldin gave a speech in San
Antonio at a meeting of the American
Astronomical Society, exhorting astronomers to dream bigger. He mentioned
Dressler by name, who was in the front
row of the audience, and challenged
him to make Hubble’s successor twice
Up and up When the james Webb space telescope was just an idea, the cost estimate was set
at $500 million. by the time the project is complete, it could cost $6.5 billion.
An independent panel esti-
mates the final cost of the
telescope at $6.5 billion.
NAsA administrator dan goldin
challenges astronomers to build
a successor to the hubble space
telescope for $500 million.
the scope enters the preliminary
design and technology-completion
phase; construction costs are set
at $2.2 billion.
A National research council
report includes a $1 billion
estimate for the james Webb
NAsA officially commits to com-
pleting the project for $5 billion.
NAsA staff inform administrator
michael griffin that the scope
will cost $3.8 billion.
April 9, 2011 | science news | 23