The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a self-initiated
review of the James Webb Space Telescope program that identified several
major management shortcomings. NASA concurs with the report's findings,
and is taking steps to bring the program into conformity with most of
its acquisition policies.
The James Webb Space Telescope is a next generation telescope that
is frequently characterized as a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope.
Its major component is a 6.5 meter segmented primary mirror. A suite
of other scientific instruments, including a near-infrared camera, a
near-infrared spectrograph, a mid-infrared instrument, and a fine guidance
sensor will also be hosted. The European Space Agency and the Canadian
Space Agency are collaborating with the United States on the telescope.
The GAO estimates that the program will require a commitment of $4.5
billion, of which $2 billion would be spent from FY 2007 through FY
2011. NASA has scheduled launch of the telescope in 2013.
The Space Studies Board of the National Research Council's Astronomy
and Astrophysics Survey Committee produced a 2001 decadal study entitled
"Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium." It described
what is now called the James Webb Space Telescope as follows: "The
Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), the committee's top-priority
recommendation, is designed to detect light from the first stars and
to trace the evolution of galaxies from their formation to the present.
It will revolutionize understanding of how stars and planets form in
our galaxy today. NGST is an 8-m class infrared space telescope with
100 times the sensitivity and 10 times the image sharpness of the Hubble
Space Telescope in the infrared. Having NGST's sensitivity extend to
27 mm would add significantly to its scientific return. Technology development
for this program is well under way. The European Space Agency and the
Canadian Space Agency plan to make substantial contributions to the
instrumentation for NGST." (See http://darwin.nap.edu/execsumm_pdf/9839.pdf
) NASA has extensive information on this program at
GAO did not comment on the telescope's scientific capabilities. Instead,
it examined the program's management, which has experienced cost growth
of $1 billion and schedule slippage of almost two years. Before this
review, GAO explained, "program officials intended to have NASA
commit to program start, which is the end of the formulation phase and
the beginning of the implementation phase, with immature technologies,
according to best practices, and without a preliminary design."
The report notes corrective action by NASA, although the GAO still
has concerns: "During our review, we discussed these shortfalls
with NASA officials, and they revised their acquisition strategy to
conform to NASA policy. However, the current strategy still does not
fully incorporate a knowledge-based approach which ensures that resources
match requirements in terms of knowledge, time, and money before program
start. If program officials follow the current plan, the maturity of
key technologies may not be adequately tested prior to program start.
In addition, it appears the program will not have sufficient funding
resources to ensure the program's success. In light of the fiscally
constrained environment the federal government and NASA will face in
the years ahead, adopting a knowledge-based approach will not only increase
the JWST program's chances for success but also lay the foundation for
comparison between competing programs."
The report was sent to the leadership of House and Senate appropriations
and authorization committees with NASA jurisdiction. House Science Committee
Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) responded, "JWST will
be an invaluable research tool when completed, but we owe it to the
American taxpayers to ensure that the resources invested in it are responsibly
managed. This report will be a valuable oversight tool." House
Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO)
stated, "I am encouraged that NASA has concurred with the GAO's
findings and recommendations and intends to address them. JWST has the
potential to continue the revolution in astronomy begun by the Hubble
Space Telescope. Yet, we need to make sure that JWST is developed as
efficiently as possible so that it doesn't adversely impact other important
astronomy and astrophysics projects at NASA."
The 31-page report can be read at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d06634.pdf