The successor to the Hubble, the 6.5-m space-based James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), has apparently inherited its precursor’s knack for budgetary problems. A report released 10 November finds JWST to be $1.5 billion over budget, and will cost NASA at least $200 million more per year for the next two years. Rather than a scheduled 2014 launch date, the report suggests that the earliest the telescope could launch is September 2015.
“This is a very large and complex project and the bottom line is that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to execute the work that was required,” said John Casani, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California who led the team preparing the report, during a media briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.
Casani specified that in 2008, at the time of the project’s confirmation, its budget contained insufficient reserves for cost overruns in the early years. Casani also laid some blame on NASA officials for not spotting the problem early on.
Despite the overrun, Chris Scolese, associate administrator at NASA Headquarters, reiterated the agency’s commitment to the project. NASA has ordered that JWST be brought to highest priority and has restructured the project’s management and oversight. But now is a difficult time for monetary trouble. As the report states: “the Panel is fully aware of the problem in adjusting budgets at this late date—especially in the face of the nation’s fiscal challenges.”
The impact of the JWST overrun could mean far reaching budget sacrifices lie ahead, first within the affected astrophysics community, then the NASA science program, and then across the entire agency, said Scolese.
Scolese added that the agency is currently going over the numbers to come up with recommendations for trimming and reallocating its budget, a task that falls to Richard Howard, the new JWST program director. Administrators declined to comment on whether the program’s current director, Phil Sabelhaus, will remain at NASA.
The report was conducted at the request of Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who questioned the project’s escalating costs earlier this year.
Following the report’s release, Senator Mikulski highlighted her commitment to space-based astronomy but called for a greater sense of urgency and frugality in reforming the JWST program. “Simply put, we are not in the business of cost overruns,” she wrote in a letter to NASA.
While the project’s cost can’t be reduced at this point, the technical aspects of the telescope remain in good shape, said Casani. He also mentioned that the report’s estimates were simply the minimum and the telescope’s final cost could escalate still further. Trying to end on a hopeful note, he said that challenging projects like JWST are “just the kind of jobs that NASA was created for.”
Previously: The telescope that ate astronomy