Management Shortcomings Identified in James Webb Space Telescope Program

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Publication date: 
14 August 2006

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 ) 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

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