Star Cents

How the cost of NASA’s next big space telescope skyrocketed

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.


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. Janel Kiley; Star Background: Timoph/iStockphoto
FUNDING GAP | An independent panel commissioned by U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski found in 2010 that the James Webb Space Telescope can’t launch before 2015 and will need $1.4 billion more in funding. Work deferred from year to year has driven up the cost, the panel reported. JWST Independent Comprehensive Review Panel 2010

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 “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 administrator 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 astrophysics 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 performance and government and contractor 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 as big — an 8-meter mirror instead of a 4-meter one. At that time, the project was still in its infancy, so no hard-and-fast cost estimate was set. But Goldin claimed that the cost could still be capped at about $500 million. For comparison, Hubble cost about $3 billion in 1996 dollars to build, says Craig Tupper, director of NASA’s resources management division, which formulates the space agency’s science budget.

To many experienced telescope builders Goldin’s suggested price tag seemed a fantasy. “No sophisticated person would walk away believing that estimate,” says Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who designed the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

But the remarks delivered by Goldin, who declined to comment for this story, received a standing ovation.

“That was a pretty strong vote of confidence that the astronomy community really wanted us to do that project,” says Nobel laureate and JWST project scientist John Mather of Goddard. NASA started allocating study funds through Goddard, which became the designated center for overseeing design and construction of the telescope and testing its components.

Goldin’s challenge to build a bigger telescope on the cheap, combined with the astronomy community’s eager acceptance, led to the current funding dilemma, says astronomer Charles Beichman of the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “Our eyes and stomachs were so big and our wallets were so small that we now have the biggest subprime mortgage loan crisis, the biggest stomachache that the community can have.”

Rising costs

In 2001, a price of $1 billion was quoted in a National Research Council report. Though it’s not clear where the value came from, many within the astronomy community came to think of it as an official cost estimate.

“NASA gave us a cost for it that no one in the community believed,” says cosmologist Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, who served on the panel that prepared the council’s report. No other budget estimate existed, he says.

Around that time several astronomers told NASA officials that the project’s cost may have been seriously underestimated. “I got whacked on the head,” for questioning the cost of JWST a decade ago, recalls one astronomer, who asked to remain anonymous. “They do punish you for questioning this sort of thing.”

Mather acknowledges that “a lot of people from outside the project looked at us and said that this can’t possibly be right.” But the team at Goddard had a strategy for keeping the price down, he says. The team had been working well in advance on the novel technologies needed for the telescope, including a 22-meter-long sun shield, a segmented gold-coated beryllium mirror that would unfurl in space and a cryogenic system.

The hope was that those early expenditures would reduce the overall cost of building the telescope, because the cost of labor and materials increases over time. But in the end, the early investment in new technology didn’t overcome the size and complexity of the project, Mather says. Costs kept rising — even though NASA decided to reduce the mirror diameter from 8 meters to 6.5 meters.

“The project went through a billion dollars at the speed of sound,” Turner says.

By the end of 2001, Goldin had departed as administrator, and in the following years, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster turned the agency’s attention away from missions like JWST, Turner notes. In 2003, the project had entered what the agency calls “Phase B” — the preliminary design and technology-completion phase. NASA’s estimate for construction was set at $2.2 billion.

Griffin says that the week he became administrator, in April 2005, NASA staff informed him that the $2.2 billion estimate had been lowballed and that the scope was going to cost an additional $1.6 billion. The extra money was supposed to take the telescope through launch, set for 2011, and the first six months of operation. The additional dollars would come from shifting money internally, among projects in the agency’s astrophysics division.

“I’ll tell you straight out, I knew that wasn’t enough,” he says. “We all knew it wasn’t enough.”

After an investigation of rising costs, the Government Accountability Office issued a report in July 2006 warning that the project did not have sufficient funds for dealing with the inevitable problems that crop up as technologies are developed. The underfunding, the report said, could put the telescope “at risk of further cost growth and schedule slippage.”

In an attempt to prevent future funding crises, Griffin announced in March 2006 that major projects like JWST would have additional contingency money added to their budgets to cushion unexpected expenses.

But Griffin says that his associate administrator for science at the time, Alan Stern, did not put that extra money in JWST’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2009, the first time the funds could have been added. Griffin adds that he did not become aware that the money wasn’t requested until after Stern departed in March 2008. Scott Pace, who was then NASA’s associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation, confirms that the money was not put in the proposed budget.
Stern says he gave the Goddard team all the money it asked for and strongly denies holding any money back from the JWST project.

Uncovering a gap

In July 2008, NASA formally confirmed the James Webb Space Telescope as a project mature enough to have a firm budget for completing construction. Whatever underestimates happened before that time can be wiped clean from the slate, says John Casani of NASA’s JPL, who led the investigative panel commissioned by Senator Mikulski. But at confirmation, he notes, the telescope’s budget is no longer an estimate but a detailed blueprint — and a clear commitment from NASA — for completing the device at a designated cost.

The Goddard team “went into confirmation with a badly flawed budget; the reserves were inadequate,” Casani says. “The first mistake was the wrong budget; the second mistake was that nobody caught it.”

At the confirmation in 2008, the team estimated that the project, through its first five years of operation, would cost a total of $4.96 billion. (A further revision between fiscal years 2010 and 2011 added $100 million more to the project, bringing the total cost to just about $5.1 billion.)

The team also said it would spend $450 million on the telescope in 2008, Tupper says. And the money needed in future years, closer to the launch date, was supposed to decline, contrary to the trend for other large space missions. But when the books closed on 2008, the actual expenditures were about $63 million more, Tupper says. By the end of September 2011, the current fiscal year, NASA will have spent about $3.5 billion in total on the telescope, he says.

Casani’s panel found that the project had tried to stay within budget by consistently deferring work that was supposed to be done in one fiscal year to the next. People had to be kept on payroll, and inflation made postponed work more costly. The deferred work ended up costing millions more than had it been done on time, the Casani panel concluded.

In 2008, NASA management thought that there was a 70 percent probability that the telescope would launch in June 2014 for a total cost of around $5 billion, Casani and colleagues noted. “In fact, the project had no chance of meeting either the schedule or the budget profile,” they wrote in the report.

Panel member Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz says that two committee findings were particularly unsettling. First, although JWST managers at Goddard did a full accounting of potential risks in 2008, they failed to ask for funds to deal with those potential problems in the budget presented at confirmation.

“The other thing that really astonished us was the lack of insight from headquarters about the project and what it was doing,” Illingworth says. No one was monitoring what was being done or asking why project deadlines hadn’t been met and how this might drive up the overall cost, he says.

The Casani panel estimated that the telescope would cost, at minimum, an additional $1.4 billion over NASA’s official $5.1 billion estimate — and that assumes launch by 2015 and that it gets $500 million more than currently budgeted between now and the end of next year.

The $1.4 billion overrun “is really the criminal part,” Dressler says. He thinks it’s reasonable to expect that building JWST would end up costing about $5 billion. But the extra $1.4 billion has accrued because people on the project weren’t acknowledging that the work deferred each year was going to add significant costs, Dressler notes.

Lessons for the future

Following the findings and recommendations from the Casani report, NASA has taken the project out of the astrophysics division and appointed Rick Howard as the new senior manager for the telescope. Howard reports directly to the NASA administrator.

During a February 14 press briefing about the president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, Howard said it seems unlikely that the telescope will launch before 2016. (And it is unclear where the extra $1.4 billion will come from.)

As of March 16, nine of the 18 mirror segments had been polished, coated and readied for flight, and the other nine will be ready by the end of the year, says Mark Clampin of Goddard. Three of four science instruments will also be ready, but engineers have not yet begun assembling JWST’s pieces.

To figure out for itself exactly how much money is required, NASA is conducting a bottom-up review, separate from the Casani panel’s estimate.

Regardless of the exact dollar value, astronomers are worried that future astrophysics projects, both on the ground and in space, won’t get their start for years because the James Webb telescope has devoured some 40 percent of the astrophysics division’s 2010 and 2011 money. The most vulnerable mission appears to be the space-based Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, WFIRST, which would seek the origins of dark energy, the mysterious stuff that is accelerating the expansion of the universe, and hunt for exoplanets. A recent National Research Council report (SN: 9/11/10, p. 10) recommended that WFIRST be given highest priority for this decade. Though costs were initially estimated at about $1.6 billion, scientists are trying to modify plans to make WFIRST a $1 billion mission.

“WFIRST is the question mark,” says Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. During a meeting at NASA headquarters in February, he and the rest of the NASA advisory committee on astronomy projects were told that only funding for WFIRST was uncertain. All other projects requested in the council’s recent report could be accommodated.

Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the WFIRST planning team, says no one at NASA has given him guidance on how much he needs to cut the mission’s cost, and he is worried that it might not fly.

The same problems encountered with JWST are bound to come up again, says Griffin, unless NASA holds individuals accountable. “As long as nothing bad happens to the people who misrepresent the data, then it’s not going to change.”

Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C., agrees, but says people also need to feel free to speak up, without being punished, when there’s a problem.

Then again, amnesia about overruns often prevails after a successful launch.

“If you get away with it, everyone praises you as a genius,” says Beichman of Caltech. “You won’t be remembered as the person who had all the overruns; you’ll be remembered as the person who created the successor to Hubble that went on to be the greatest scientific machine of the coming decade.”

Hubble had a history of overruns too, but the telescope’s astounding images and discoveries are its legacy, not the dollars spent nor its flawed mirror.

“It’s like childbirth,” Beichman says. “So long as your children turn out well, you’re happy as a clam. The pregnancy and the birthing process are simply forgotten.”

In the details
Long before the proposed James Webb Space Telescope got the go-ahead, researchers began developing new technology needed to carry out the mission. 

Mirror, mirror  The James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror, totaling 6.5 meters across, will have about six times the collecting area of the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror, allowing for improved sensitivity. Because it is so large, the mirror had to be designed as 18 segments (six shown above). This design allows the mirror to fold, so it can be carried to space in a rocket about 5 meters wide. Made of beryllium, a strong yet lightweight element, the mirror’s segments are coated in a thin gold film to maximize reflectivity. The mirror will unfurl once in space and actuators will adjust the segments to achieve the ideal focus for recording distant galaxies at infrared wavelengths.

Webb spies The telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (second from left) will use arrays made of mercury-cadmium-telluride to detect light in the 0.6- to 5-micrometer wavelength range, which includes yellow light, red light and a range beyond what the human eye can see. These wavelengths should reveal early star and galaxy formation, star populations in nearby galaxies and, astronomers hope, signs of dark matter. The camera also helps sense when the primary mirror needs adjustment to correct for aberrations in the optical system. The Mid-Infrared Instrument will detect wavelengths of light from 5 to more than 28 micrometers.

So cool Anything hot — including a telescope itself — can give off infrared light, so scientists need to keep the telescope and its scientific instruments cool. The mirrors will be kept at an average of –228º Celsius. A special cryocooler (middle), which achieves cooling by circulating certain gases, was designed by Northrop Grumman specifically for the telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, which will operate close to –266º Celsius, 7 degrees above absolute zero.

Blocking the sun In order to block any heat coming from the sun, a tennis-court–sized parasol will unfurl to shade the telescope once it gets to space. This “sun shield” (second from right) is made of five layers, each less than a millimeter thick, of a heat-resistant material called Kapton. The layers are designed and connected so that a small hole in one layer shouldn’t affect the other layers. As the telescope orbits about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, the sun, Earth and moon will remain on one side, blocked by the shield.

Blinded by science   Beyond the Near-Infrared Camera and the Mid-Infrared Instrument, two other science instruments will operate throughout the life of the telescope, which, unlike Hubble, will be too far away to be serviced. The Near-Infrared Spectroscope, which disperses light into its component colors, will allow scientists to simultaneously observe 100 objects. The Tunable Filter Imager can select very specific wavelengths to focus on. All four instruments are housed in the Integrated Science Instrument Module (right).