The price tag for NASA’s next big space telescope keeps rising and the launch date will likely be delayed as well. A new report from an independent panel on the James Webb Space Telescope reveals it will take about $6.5 billion to launch and run the telescope for its projected 10-year mission. The price had previously ballooned from $3.5 billion to $5 billion. Originally the telescope was slated to launch in 2007, but was pushed back to 2014. Now, the panel says, the earliest launch date would be in September 2015.
The panel, requested by Congress, said there appears to be no technical issues with the telescope, but budget and management problems are the reasons for the cost overruns and delays.
“There is no reason to question the technical integrity of the design or of the team’s ability to deliver a quality product to orbit,” said John Casani from the Jet Propulsion Lab, who chaired the panel. “The problems causing cost growth and schedule delays have been associated with budgeting and program management, not technical performance.”
The money to cover the overruns will require $250 million more in NASA’s FY 2011 and 2012 budget. But with the current state of affairs in the country and Congress, it is likely other programs will suffer or be cut in order to pay for JWST.
In a teleconference with reporters, NASA associate administrator Chris Scolese admitted that NASA officials did not do a very good job of keeping track of what was going on with the massive telescope project.
“We were missing a certain fraction of what was going on,” Scolese. “The fault lies with us.”
The panel concluded that the budget was not sufficient in the early days of the telescope’s development for everything to go as hoped.
“The budget was flawed, from a money standpoint it was just insufficient to carry out the work,” said John Klineberg, a member of the panel and a retired engineer. “The budget was skewed, and the reserves to complete the work were also wrong because they were predicated on a budget that was too low. Headquarters did not spot the errors, and they didn’t fully recognize the extent to which the budget was understating the needs of the project.”
“This is a large, complex project and to estimate something to a real degree of precision is hard,” Klineberg added.
The panel found no way for current costs to be reduced, but found ways to reduce the likelihood of cost-growth in the future.
In order for JWST to be built and launched, the panel said NASA should restructure the project organization at Goddard Spaceflight Center to improve the accounting of costs and reserves. The program will now report directly to the Administrator’s office. Richard Howard will be the new JWST program director, replacing Phil Sabelhaus.
“We have to focus on doing what is right to get the project back on track,” said Scolese, “but I want to emphasize that there are no technical problems with the telescope and we have to thank the team for doing a great technical job. The important thing we have to fix is the cost management at the project level and at the management level.”
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said, “I am disappointed we have not maintained the level of cost control we strive to achieve, something the American taxpayer deserves in all of our projects….NASA is committed to finding a sustainable path forward for the program based on realistic cost and schedule assessments.”
The teleconference with journalists included a first – at least for this reporter: one caller berated NASA management and swore at Scolese, obviously frustrated by the lack of oversight by NASA on what is supposed to be a flagship mission for the space agency’s astronomy division.
The infrared telescope will have a 6.5 meter (22 ft.) mirror and a sunshade the size of a tennis court. JWST should be able to look back in time to find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, and to peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming.
Read the report (pdf): James Webb Space Telescope Independent Comprehensive Review Panel — Nov. 10, 2010