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Management blamed for space telescope cost overrun

Management miscues, not technical problems, led to a projected $1.5 billion cost overrun for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, an independent review panel has concluded.

NASA management miscues threaten to drive up the cost of the agency's next generation space telescope by some $1.5 billion, an independent review panel reported today, pushing the overall cost of the project into the neighborhood of $6.5 billion. That's a best-case assessment that assumes the agency launches the observatory in 2015, the earliest realistic target.

But making that earliest possible launch date also assumes NASA comes up with an additional $250 million in both 2011 and 2012, an unlikely prospect in the current political environment. Barring a sudden infusion of cash, it's not yet clear what NASA can do to avoid additional delays--and even higher long-term costs--for the agency's successor to the hugely successful Hubble Space Telescope.

A drawing of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. NASA

Panel chairman John Casani, a widely respected project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said NASA had not squandered money budgeted for the next generation James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. Rather, agency managers failed to accurately estimate the complex program's true costs in the first place.

"The fundamental root cause of the problem is that at the time of (the program's formal approval), which goes back to July 2008, the budget that NASA was presented with by the project office was basically flawed," he told reporters in an afternoon teleconference. "The budget simply did not contain the content that the project even knew about at that time. And so from a money standpoint, it was just insufficient to carry out the work."

The second major problem driving the projected cost overrun was that NASA Headquarters "did not spot the error in it," Casani said. "I don't think they fully recognized the extent to which the basic budget was understating the full requirements of the project. Those were the two major problems, the two root causes, at the outset.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who does not participate in news briefings, said in a statement that he was pleased the panel did not find any major technical problems with the new space telescope. But he added, "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," he said.

The James Webb Space Telescope Independent Comprehensive Review Panel, or ICRP, was set up by NASA at the request of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat whose district includes NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center where the telescope project is based. The review panel, which spent about two months evaluating the JWST project, presented its report today.

Hailing the scientific potential of the new telescope, "this report raises significant concerns about the way in which the JWST project has been planned and managed and how its budgets were established," the panel's report concluded. "The ICRP did not find that the funds used by JWST over the last 7-8 years were wasted. On the contrary, a substantial amount of cutting-edge hardware has been delivered and is now being tested as part of the first steps toward the overall integration and test of the observatory.

Mirror segments, built for the James Webb Space Telescope, undergoing testing. NASA

"The JWST project does face serious difficulties, however, largely stemming from the lack of a well-defined plan for completion and because a series of decisions have led to substantial underfunding. The project must find the path to a successful launch with a realistic budget and executable schedule."

Chris Scolese, associate NASA administrator, said a new program office has been set up at agency Headquarters under the direction of Richard Howard, NASA's deputy chief technologist, who will report directly to Bolden and senior management.

Scolese would not speculate on what NASA might do to find additional funding and avoid additional launch delays, telling reporters the agency would need several weeks to get a better idea of what might be needed.

"Our main goal right now is to strengthen the management, which we're doing, to strengthen the oversight, which we're doing, and develop a good, strong estimate that we can defend," he said. "We aren't in the business of cost overruns...We're taking this very, very seriously."

Howard said he hoped to present initial findings by February.

The Hubble Space Telescope, NASA's premiere scientific satellite, has generated a flood of scientific papers, stunning pictures and major discoveries over the past 20 years. Thanks to a recent shuttle servicing mission, Hubble should remain operational through at least 2013 and possibly longer.

The James Webb Space Telescope, named after NASA's second administrator, promises to push the frontiers of knowledge back almost to the big bang explosion that created the universe.

"We've all seen the stunning results that have come out from Hubble over the last nearly two decades," said astronomer Garth Illingworth, a member of the JWST review panel. "The James Webb is a hugely more powerful facility than Hubble, a hundred times more powerful at least."

Optimized to study infrared light emitted from the most ancient stars and galaxies, JWST is expected to give astronomers a glimpse of the first generation of stars to form in the wake of the big bang.

Unlike Hubble, which rode into orbit aboard a space shuttle, the JWST will be launched by an unmanned European Ariane 5 rocket and boosted to a location known as the sun-Earth Lagrange point about one million miles from Earth. Satellites placed at gravitationally balanced Lagrange points can maintain stable orbits around the sun without the need for frequent rocket-powered maneuvers.

To save money and simplify the engineering challenge, JWST was not designed to be serviced or repaired by spacewalking astronauts. Once launched, the telescope will be on its own for the duration of its five-and-a-half-year design life or however long it stays healthy.

At the heart of the JWST is a huge, 21-foot-wide segmented mirror that is 2.7 times wider than Hubble's with about six times more light-collecting area. An instrument module is located below the mirror to analyze the ancient light collected by the telescope.

Once in space, the JWST will unfold like a huge mechanical origami. A giant five-layer sunshade the size of a tennis court will unfold to shade the mirror, helping keep it at an operating temperature of about 50 degrees above absolute zero. The mirror itself will unfold to achieve its full diameter, along with an adjustable secondary mirror mounted at the apex of three folding support masts.

The JWST will weigh about 14,300 pounds on Earth, about half the weight of the Hubble Space Telescope with its heavy one-piece mirror and closed-tube design. But given the one-shot make-or-break nature of the mission, the telescope's state-of-the-art systems must work perfectly right out of the box for the mission to succeed.

"This is a very large, complex project and to estimate something with any read degree of precision that's never been done before is a tough job," Casani said. "The bottom line is, there was just not enough money in the budget to execute the work that was required."

He said the review panel did not find "any way that the project costs could be reduced in any way. But we did identify a number of things that could be done that would reduce the likelihood of future cost growth. ... All of those are doable and can be handled quite readily by headquarters."