NASA Management Blamed for Space Telescope Cost Overrun

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.

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.

"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.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."