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

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Publication date: 
23 November 2010

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.

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