Rumors of Continued Soaring Life-Cycle Costs for Webb Telescope

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016
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Under the threat of cancellation because of cost overruns, this is about the worst news the James Webb Space Telescope could get. A report in Aviation Week & Space Technology says the life cycle costs for developing, launching and managing a five-year mission for the giant space telescope has risen to $8.7 billion, up from the previous estimate of $6.5 billion.

This past July, the U.S House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science proposed a budget for fiscal year 2012 that would cancel JWST’s funding. No final decision has been made on the fate of JWST, but this latest increase – just one of many life cycle increases of the telescope – does not bode well for NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Aviation Week said managers at NASA have been re-planning the James Webb Space Telescope program after an independent cost analysis found it over budget and behind schedule. The independent analysis was headed by John Casani, a special assistant to the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with long experience developing scientific spacecraft, and that report found the $5.1 billion estimate to completion was at least $1.4 billion short.

Now, tack on an additional $2.2 billion.

No details were provided of what the $2.2 billion includes, but the launch of JWST would be no earlier than 2018.

Details of how the agency will pay the cost will be covered in the fiscal 2013 NASA budget request now in preparation, Aviation Week quoted a NASA spokesman.

Of course, NASA’s entire budget is threatened to be cut by at least 10%, as President Obama has asked federal agencies to cut their budgets by that amount to enable a chance at balancing the federal budget.

But today, Nature News reports that NASA is looking at funding the flagship observatory in a different manner. JWST is currently funded entirely through NASA’s science division; now NASA is requesting that more than $1 billion in extra costs be shared 50:50 with the rest of the agency. Nature News said the request reflects administrator Charles Bolden’s view, expressed earlier this month, that the telescope is a priority not only for the science program but for the entire agency.

If ‘creative’ funding for JWST is not worked out, it would mean other programs would suffer greatly or be cut.

NASA made personnel changes at Goddard Spaceflight Center, the home of JWST, after Casani’s group concluded the majority of costs overruns were managerial rather than technical.

Sources: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Nature News



16 Responses

  1. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says:

    […], after Casani’s group concluded the majority of costs overruns were managerial rather than technical.

    Figures! (Pun intended.) It’s the same here in Britain with the bloody National Health Service (N.H.S.)!

    • Anonymous says:

      You in the way! Kill me, kill me now! – A project manager who thinks he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.

      I’m going to miss your kiddie-kat, Ivan.

  2. Our country throws Billions at nations that hate us…you would think they would dole out the comparative pittance for one of the greatest astronomical projects of our time. All polititians are insane!!!

    • Torbjörn Larsson says:

      It is probably precisely because US has thrown billions at such things as military operations and supporting dictatorships that other nations are less than pleased. They will probably be happy when US no longer can afford it.

      [Personally I think the world needs rapid response forces. Hopefully Nato can remain one such.]

      Politicians aren’t insane, they are politically expedient; politics are insane, and we voters help it become so.

  3. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    Casani’s group concluded the majority of costs overruns were managerial rather than technical.

    Of course.

    As I remember it, the average project overruns at ~ 50 % on cost and ~ 30 % on time.

    It takes a real genius to administrate overruns at ~ 800 % on cost (initial cost estimate ~ 0.9 GUSD and ~ 200 % on time (initial design time estimate ~ 5 years from 2002)!

    Sunk cost and effort is not a valid project measure, if I understand economists correctly. The remaining ~ 6 GUSD (~ 3 GUSD used as of 2010) would pay for 2-3 NASA flagship missions @ 2-3 GUSD.

    Of course there is no reason to believe the needed capital would go to such use. But maybe we would at least get some missions before 2018!

  4. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    Actually, that could be ~ 450 % time overrun:

    “According to sources, NASA Associate Administrator Chris Scolese told a group of aerospace executives this week that running JWST at a rate of $375 million a year would result in a launch date of 2022-2024. […]

    Note that NASA does not dispute the fact that Scolese mentioned that the annual $375 million spending rate would result in a slip to 2022-2024 – rather, that they are studying things … stay tuned.”

    But that is rumors as for now.

  5. Sam Wilson says:

    This is such an important instrument for science and mankind as a whole. I’m surprised someone hasn’t figured out that intelligence and wonder have the potential to be a better weapon than any missile, if used correctly by the operator.

  6. HeadAroundU says:

    I wonder why they do such a big project alone. Why is it without ESA?

    Well, get 2000 soldiers back home and it’s fixed. 😀

    Also, it is expected that such big and innovative project will have cost overruns. It must be bombarded with money.

    • It’s not without ESA. ESA’s responsible for two of the four instruments (and a third one is being built in Canada). Seventeen countries are participating in the mission.

      • HeadAroundU says:

        Whoops, I must have forgotten. Would be great if it was mentioned in the article and if ESA has cost overruns too.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The cost overruns are due to the culture of aerospace companies. The primary bread and butter of these companies are defense contracts. The costs of these programs notoriously inflate far beyond initial cost projections and initial bids. It happens on the nuts and bolts level as well; just recall the $500 toilet seats. NASA contracts out to the same companies, but NASA is under more budgetary constraints.

    I have had my concerns on the JWST. The system is extremely complex. The main complexity is how this unfolds from its payload package. This dish antenna surfing on a board configuration means that thousands of pieces and struts have to move in a coordinated manner. If this goes up and reaches L2 I think the nail biting period will be the deployment.

    However, if this makes it up that huge mirror will be an enormous eye to the sky in the IR. It must be remembered that we can’t set this up on Earth very well, for the atmosphere attenuates IR.

    LC

    • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says:

      It happens on the nuts and bolts level as well; just recall the $500 toilet seats.

      I think that money is well spent – it is the only time and place that managers know what they are doing!

    • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says:

      It happens on the nuts and bolts level as well; just recall the $500 toilet seats.

      I think that money is well spent – it is the only time and place that managers know what they are doing!

  8. Checkers Crossfox says:

    Why don’t they just shut down NASA, since the United States just doesn’t seem to be interested in science anymore?

  9. John Sunol says:

    much needed, They need to find other ways around this as mans interest in outerspace is gwoning ever so much, the more we learn the more we want

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