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Independent Review Panel Lauds Technical Performance, Faults Management of Webb Space Telescope

Richard M. Jones
Number 116 - November 23, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The James Webb Space Telescope Independent Comprehensive Review Panel has concluded that “the technical performance on the Project has been commendable and often excellent,” but criticized the project’s budgeting and program management.  The result has been cost growth and schedule delays that are a continuing concern to a key Senate appropriator.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the fourth of NASA’s Great Observatories.  It will provide unparalleled views of the universe operating 1.5 million km from Earth with an 18-segment primary mirror 6.5 meters in diameter.  By comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope orbits 560 km from Earth with a single 2.4 meter diameter primary mirror. In describing the telescope, the panel explained:

“JWST continues this tradition of high-risk, high-return ventures that address some of the greatest scientific questions of the time. It is astonishing to realize that JWST will have the ability to look back 13.5 billion years through 98% of all time to when the Universe was young and see the first galaxies as they form. The abilities of JWST far exceed those of Hubble and it is highly likely to go beyond Hubble’s now legendary accomplishment of generating more discoveries than any other science mission.”

The seven-to-eight year development of the telescope has been troubled by management problems.  In an FY 2010 conference report issued late last year, House and Senate appropriators wrote:

“The conferees provide the full budget request of $441,400,000 for the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's next orbiting observatory scheduled to launch in 2014. The conferees are troubled by ongoing cost overruns and inaccurate phasing of reserves that have required the Committees to approve multiple adjustments to Webb's funding levels. These adjustments have totaled $95,000,000 in the last six months alone, and the Committees are aware that additional adjustments may be needed in fiscal year 2010. Before the Committees will consider any further adjustments, NASA shall provide to the Committees a report on the factors contributing to Webb's cost overruns and reserve phasing problems, identifying NASA's plans to address these issues and how it shall prevent such occurrences in the future.”

NASA’s report which did little to ease the concerns of Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  Mikulski’s importance to the determination of the FY 2011 NASA budget cannot be overstated.  In a June 29 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden she wrote:

“The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most scientifically powerful telescope NASA has ever built -- 100 times more powerful than the Hubble which has already rewritten our textbooks. Congress has provided all of the funding requested for the JWST. Yet ongoing cost overruns and inadequate phasing of reserves have required an additional $95 million in fiscal year (FY) 2009 and another $20 million in FY 2010.”

“I am deeply troubled by the escalating costs for the JWST. The report the agency provided in response to my Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations provided little comfort that the problems are behind us. Simply put, NASA must manage the cost and schedule of its large scale programs to the highest standard.

“I request that you immediately initiate an independent and comprehensive review of JWST, led by experts from outside of NASA.  I recommend this review be overseen by your immediate office and that you appoint individuals with the depth and range of experience to assess how to complete development of JWST within budget and on schedule. . . . "

In concluding this letter, Mikulski wrote:

“Our goal should be to launch JWST as early as possible, with the lowest overall cost. This panel's input will be critical to our consideration of NASA's FY 2011 appropriations.”

In response, NASA established the James Webb Space Telescope Independent Comprehensive Review Panel, chaired by John Casani of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  The seven-member panel started its work in August, and conducted 66 interviews at nine different times with NASA, aerospace corporations, a university, a research institution, the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a key staff member of Senator Mikulski’s appropriations subcommittee.  The panel completed a 47-page report, releasing it in mid-November.

The report provides considerable detail about deficiencies in budgeting and program management.  The Executive Summary reviews the panel’s major findings:

“The estimate to complete the JWST Project at Confirmation was understated for two reasons. First, the budget presented by the Project at Confirmation was flawed because it was not based upon a current bottoms-up estimate and did not include the known threats. As a result of poor program and cost control practices, the Project failed to develop a reasonable cost and schedule baseline.”

A Confirmation review confirms a space craft and its instruments can be successfully built and launched and its science objectives achieved.

The report continues:

“Second, the reserves provided were too low because they were established against a baseline budget that was too low, and in addition, because of budget constraints, were too low in the year of Confirmation and the year following (less than 20%) the two highest expenditure years. Leadership at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and NASA Headquarters failed to independently analyze the JWST Project’s performance and recognize the flawed baseline.”

A key paragraph states:

“Unaware of how badly understated the JWST Budget was, NASA management thought there was a 70% probability of launching in June 2014 at a total lifecycle cost of nearly $5 billion with the Confirmation budget profile. In fact, the Project had no chance of meeting either the schedule or the budget profile.”

The report continues: 

“Another contributing factor was that in balancing the overall astrophysics program, the Astrophysics Division did not allocate the full funding amount needed to execute the Project. This might have required shifting resources from other programs within the Division. If this was not within its budgeting authority, the Division should have gone on record to the SMD [Science Missions Directorate] and Agency management that its portfolio was not executable. Instead, the Division accepted the Project’s continuing practice of deferring work and accepted the consequence of continued cost and schedule growth.”


“Still another contributory factor was the lack of effective oversight by GSFC [Goddard Space Flight Center] of what the Project presented at Confirmation and at the subsequent program budget submissions. The direct cause for this was the interpretation of the NASA governance policy on roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities regarding the Center in project management and execution, due either to ambiguity in the NASA governance policy or to lack of effective communication between HQ and the Centers on this important issue. In either case, immediate corrective action is required.”

The panel determined that the “earliest launch date possible” is September 2015.  In its judgment, the project’s total Life Cycle Cost will be between $6.2 billion and $6.8 billion, as compared to what NASA management anticipated would be “nearly $5 billion.”  To maintain the new schedule, the panel estimated that an additional $250 million will be required in FY 2011 as well as another $250 million in FY 2012 over what the Administration planned earlier this year. 

NASA Administrator Bolden released a statement on November 10 in response to the report.  In it, he explains:

“The ICRP report makes clear that, while JWST technical performance has been consistent with the project plan, the cost performance and coordination have been lacking, and I agree with these findings.

"No one is more concerned about the situation we find ourselves in than I am, and that is why I am reorganizing the JWST Project at Headquarters and the Goddard Space Flight Center, and assigning a new senior manager at Headquarters to lead this important effort . . . .”

“I am encouraged the ICRP verified our assessment that JWST is technically sound, and that the project continues to make progress and meet its milestones. However, 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.”

Bolden’s statement did not ease Mikulski’s concerns.  The same day that Bolden released his statement, Mikulski replied to him as follows:

“Dear Mr. Administrator:

“I have reviewed your letter and the report of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Independent Comprehensive Review Panel led by John Casani. I appreciate the high level of attention that JWST is now getting.

“To my dismay, the Casani report found poor management, inadequate cost analysis, and lack of adequate budgeting for risks as root causes of JWST's cost growth. NASA must have a sense of urgency and frugality to correct the management and oversight deficits while presenting a realistic budget and project plan. We cannot afford to continue with business as usual in this stark fiscal situation.

“I asked for this review because I was alarmed by reports of problems and escalating costs. Unfortunately, the report validates my greatest concerns. The Webb telescope will now cost $6.5 billion, $1.5 billion more than the estimate included in NASA's February 2010 budget request. Its launch will be delayed by over a year, from June 2014 to September 2015.

“I am committed to space-based astronomy. Like the Hubble before it, the Webb telescope has the potential to rewrite our science books. Building this telescope, 100 times more powerful than Hubble, is an awesome technical challenge. I was heartened that the Casani panel found JWST to be technically sound and vital to scientific advancement. But we cannot let its scientific potential blind us to the continual pattern of cost growth. Simply put, we are not in the business of cost overruns.

“I appreciate your initial response to begin to manage the project more aggressively. However, I will repeat again, the management and budgetary reforms you detail must have a greater sense of urgency and frugality.

“Again, thank you for your personal attention to this important project.”

Latest reports indicate that Congress is unlikely to pass an omnibus appropriations bill for FY 2011 in December, resulting in a continuing resolution that will put off final action on the NASA budget request until next year.  While this time will be helpful in dealing with the concerns of Senator Mikulski, the new Congress which convenes in early 2011 will be intent on reducing federal expenditures.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics