James Webb: A pocket history of costs

25 08 2011

A full history of the JWST can be found here.

The James Webb Space Telescope was born in an era of smaller, faster, cheaper. Today it’s taking flak for being severely over budget and becoming the “telescope that ate astronomy“. How did we get from an initial project cost of $500 million to the estimated $8.7 billion that NASA is now suggesting?

Despite the press, JWST is not just a mere follow-on to Hubble. If it does fly, JWST will have the most ambitious mission profile ever conceived for a space telescope. It will operate 2500 times farther away from the Earth than Hubble does. Were it to break, there is no hope of sending astronauts to fix it – the design needs to work first time. If we can borrow a cliche just for a second, this really is rocket science!

The time line for JWST as we know it now begins in the late 1980s. It was realized then than high technology space missions typically take 20 years from conception to operation. Over the next few years design ideas were floated, and mission concepts gradually evolved.

The initial costing of $500 million in 1996 was dismissed pretty quickly. It was for one contractor (impractical) building the telescope with essentially just one camera (low science return). But this was the era of smaller faster cheaper, and the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), needed to play ball.

By 2000-01 cost estimates were much higher. The science case for a better specified mission that included more instruments couldn’t be dismissed. It was now becoming clear that this was a billion dollar mission. But even at this time the cost increases envisaged were not possible. Thus the first mission descope happened, and the size of the telescope reduced from 8m to 6m. The launch date was set for 2008.

2002 was a pretty historic year. Teams were selected to build a number of instruments, and the NGST was officially renamed the James Webb Space Telescope. By 2004 JWST costs were finally becoming fully understood. Technical challenges were beginning to appear, some of which that would take years to solve. But this shouldn’t be surprising. JWST mission parameters are unique. We haven’t built anything quite like it before. The launch date had now slipped to 2011.

By 2005 new cost reviews were pegging the telescope cost at $3.5 billion. This was close to a doubling over the previous $2 billion mark. Quietly in the background technical challenges that couldn’t be addressed were being left while work that could be completed was done. Faced with limited budgets managers were doing what they could to press ahead. The launch date was now 2013.

By 2010 the cost overruns were attracting the attention of both governmental houses in the US. A review prompted by Senator Barbara Mikulski pegged the mission cost for a 2014 launch date at $6.5 billion, $1.5 billion higher than an earlier estimate of $5 billion that was believed by some to be conservative. The report also highlighted several deficiencies in management, including inadequate budgets for risky technologies and suggested that parts of the projected had been underfunded.

Now, in August 2011 we’re hearing a launch date of 2018. Internal NASA budgets now put costs at $8.7 billion. This number likely isn’t the lowest the project could be launched for. At some point when a lot of the mission is already completed (70% is a good estimate) delaying the launch date just adds costs for keeping people involved, storage of delicate equipment and so on. Money likely could be saved if it was launched earlier. But the money to launch earlier just isn’t there right now.

Of course, JWST isn’t the worst cost over run in history, in fact it’s far from it. Boston’s Big Dig project went from $2.5 billion to almost $15 billion. The international space station jumped from $17 billion to well over $30 billion. Both of these projects were completed. A number of defence projects, from the B-1 bomber to the V22 Osprey have gone billions and billions over budget as well. These are all flying too. Last but by no means least, the Hubble Space Telescope ended up costing around $8 billion if we include the costs of the servicing missions. JWST for the same prices seems like a bargain to me!

At the end of the day, defending poor management and underestimated costs isn’t something we should be doing, but it has happened before. And it will again. Project and mission profiles change, and costs rise.

JWST stands to unlock mysteries that we literally cannot see from the ground. As I’ve said before, if Hubble opened a window on the Universe, JWST will bust open the barn doors. The scientific returns will be quite unlike anything flown before.

Charles Bolden, NASA’s current Administrator, is acutely aware of the importance of JWST, and there are suggestions of moving money from other budgets. Expect some political fireworks to start soon – September will see JWST on the front pages.



2 responses

25 08 2011
Michael Merrifield

A couple of points I would like to make, if I may.

First, I am not sure I buy the issue to do with uncertainties as an excuse for the ballooning cost to NASA. The costs have largely been for contracts placed with large companies to deliver parts of the telescope. Surely, a competent contract would say “In return for delivering X, we will; pay you $Y.” If it turns out that the high-tech aerospace company is useless at estimating costs, then the overruns should be eating into their profits, not the public purse. If they consistently low-ball their costings, they should simply go out of business rather than being allowed to carry on a practice that surely verges on blackmail.

Second, although I agree that scientifically JWST will be an awesome leap forward, my suspicion is that it will not catch the public imagination in nearly the same way that HST did. There are several reasons for this, I think. First, its orbit means that it lacks the human interest and scale of seeing astronauts next to it, working in space. Second, what JWST will do best in many cases is to push current observations to greater distances, where HST and other facilities have already cherry-picked the nearby examples and produced the stunning press releases. Of course there will be exceptions, but I think JWST will find it harder to grab the popular headlines. Finally, there is the issue that much of its work will be in the infrared. The reason why HST images look so stunning are often down to the dramatic effects of dust obscuration, which, by design, JWST will eliminate.

25 08 2011

As usual, thanks for the comments Mike.

If I was to be cynical I’d point to the fact that contract bids always come in at the available budget. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big transport project, building project or whatever, rarely do contractors come in and say “sorry can’t do it for that cost”. Of course if you start of with fixed price contracts, which sounds great, then companies run the risk of going under and a it becomes a lot less likely that you’ll get people bidding. But I don’t want to put the blame at the feet of contractors. I think this happens all the time in every form of large project. Heck it happened internally within the merchant bank I worked in. People undercosted to get things going. Sad but true.

Your point about the dust issue is a good one, and it will be interesting to see how things play out in the public relations area if JWST does fly. I have joked with colleagues that lots of blurry 3 pixel wide first galaxies will not make for great press releases. But I’m sure there will be plenty of beautiful mosaics done, and if worst comes to worst, one could always break out old ground-based NIR images and compare.

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