Cost overruns and delays add up to $6.5 billion for NASA’s next-gen space telescope

Panel cites mismanagement for escalating price tag on James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that promises to peer deeper into space and further back into the universe’s history, will cost at least $1.5 billion more than the $5 billion NASA estimated just two years ago. Moreover, the telescope will need an infusion of $200 million of that additional money in the next year, and a similar infusion the year after that, if it is to be launched in 2015. If the mission is delayed further, costs will only escalate.

SKY’S THE LIMIT The James Webb Space Telescope, pictured in this artist’s illustration, is at least $1.5 billion over budget and behind schedule, a new report shows. The telescope, whose launch date had been postponed several times, was most recently set for deployment in 2014, but a panel concludes that it cannot be launched any earlier than 2015. NASA

Those are the conclusions of an independent review panel that investigated the extent and root causes of JWST’s financial woes and schedule delays at the request of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland and chairwoman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget.

The head of the review panel, John Casani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., summarized the panel’s report during a November 10 telephone press briefing . Casani said his panel found that the design and construction of JWST, which is now being assembled, is technically sound. But the report points to mismanagement, he said, including faulty estimates of the project’s overall cost and a failure to realize that a greater proportion of funds would be needed during the telescope’s initial construction, as the cause of the overruns.

“This is NASA’s Hurricane Katrina,” declared astronomer Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., who was not a member of the panel but chairs an independent NASA advisory committee on astronomy research. Shifting funds to pay for the telescope “will leave nothing but devastation in [NASA’s] Astrophysics Division budget if its total cost increases by $1.4 billion over the next 5 years,” he said. He notes that JWST  already gobbles 40 percent of NASA’s budget for astrophysics projects. The recommended increases would cut in half NASA support for all other astrophysics research, Boss said.

Once JWST got the initial green light from NASA in 2008, the agency failed to treat costs for the project any differently than it had when the telescope was still on the drawing board, Casani said. As a result, the level of funding “was just insufficient to carry out the work,” he said. In addition, the astronomers who presented the proposal to NASA appear to have underestimated the cost of the complex project, which features the largest mirror ever flown — a 6.5-meter device that will unfold in space — and a multilayered Mylar sunshade to keep the flying infrared observatory cool. Because the telescope has a much larger mirror than Hubble and will be sensitive to much longer infrared wavelengths, astronomers expect JWST to find the universe’s very first galaxies and stars, image extrasolar planets and probe the earliest stages of stellar formation.  

NASA associate administrator Chris Scolese said that the space agency agreed with the panel’s findings and had already placed the telescope under new management to prevent further budget problems. However, he said it was doubtful that the agency could find an extra $200 million for the telescope for this fiscal year, which began October 1. A revised budget for the telescope, including proposed sources of additional funding, probably won’t be ready until February 2011, he said.

Boss isn’t optimistic about the chances that the telescope will get any substantial increases in funds any time soon. “Given the president’s aversion for raising the astrophysics budget, the huge federal deficit and Republicans calling today for federal budget freezes and cuts, there is unlikely to be any new money to pay for the James Webb Space Telescope’s increased costs,” Boss said. “That means the telescope might have to be delayed in launch in order to wait for the money to arrive each year, driving up the total cost even more, and delaying the development of anything new in [NASA’s astrophysics division] until after 2020.”

Even before the new report, astronomers (including Boss’ advisory panel) had repeatedly expressed concern — most recently at a September meeting in Washington — that funding for JWST will prevent or delay other astronomy projects from getting off the ground. A decade ago, the mission’s supporters had put a price tag on the mission of about $1 billion, less than one-sixth the new estimated cost.

Panel member and astronomer Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who regularly uses Hubble to search for distant galaxies, said that, to him, there was no question that JWST was technically sound, worth the extra money and would revolutionize astrophysics.

JWST is not alone in costing more than first budgeted: Hubble cost $1.5 billion when launched in 1990, but by 1992 NASA had spent some $2.5 billion on the mission. The panel noted that, in current dollars, Hubble cost $5 billion to launch.

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