Will JWST Breach Its $8 Billion Cost Cap? Results of Independent Review Could Come Next Week

Will JWST Breach Its $8 Billion Cost Cap? Results of Independent Review Could Come Next Week

Results of an independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and whether it will be able to meet its revised schedule could be announced next week according to the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.  Last year, NASA delayed the launch from October 2018 to March-June 2019, but there are questions as to whether even that schedule can be met.  If not, it would mean another cost overrun for the $8.8 billion program, which already is billions over its original estimate.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate,  initiated the independent review in January.  He told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Science Committee today that his best guess is that the results will be publicly announced next week.

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.

Continuous cost growth in the JWST program during the decade of the 2000s led to an independent review in 2010 led by JPL’s John Casani.  It concluded the program’s cost, originally pegged at $1 billion, had grown to $6.1 billion.  NASA subsequently did its own review and concluded the cost would be $8 billion including cost and schedule reserves to deal with “unknown unknowns” as development progressed.  NASA said launch would take place in October 2018.

Congress agree to proceed with the program, but imposed a cost cap of $8 billion for development, which is repeated in each year’s appropriations bill.  It does not include $837 million for operations or launch costs.  NASA is partnering on JWST with the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA).  ESA is providing the launch on an Ariane 5 rocket at no cost to NASA.

NASA announced last fall that delays in integrating the spacecraft and its scientific instruments at the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, would push the launch into a three-month window from late March to late June 2019.  NASA insisted that as long as the telescope is launched by June 2019, the reserves are sufficient to cover the delay.

However, there have been questions about whether the new schedule can be met.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned three weeks ago in its most recent review of the JWST program that the schedule was “likely unachievable” and the cost cap could be breached.

Zurbuchen hinted that may well be the case.  “We’re just in the last part of an independent review of the schedule” and if it cannot be launched in that timeframe “what that will mean is we will have a schedule breach and if [the cost] goes over $8 billion, a cost breach, the way the law is written. … My guess right now is the announcement [of the results of the review] will be next week.”

He added that he hoped NASA would have its FY2018 budget by then, although as of press time, the House Appropriations Committee still had not released its version of the final FY2018 appropriations bill.  Whether Congress will complete action on FY2018 appropriations by Friday, when the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) expires, is an open question.  Another short-term CR may be needed.

JWST is the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, but will study the universe primarily in infrared rather than visible wavelengths.  It will be able to look back further in time than Hubble to find the earliest galaxies and look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.

JWST’s successor, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), is currently being designed, but the Trump Administration is proposing in the FY2019 budget request that the program be cancelled.  It wants to reallocate the $3.2-3.9 billion WFIRST would cost to the human exploration program and to smaller astrophysics projects.  NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz told the NAC Science Committee today, as he has said in other venues, that the WFIRST program will continue as planned until Congress decides whether to adopt that proposal.

The FY2019 budget request also proposes to merge the funding lines for JWST and the rest of NASA’s astrophysics program into one.  They have been separate for many years to help with management of the JWST program.  If JWST breaches its cost cap, the rest of NASA’s astrophysics program might have to absorb those additional costs, further constraining its activities.


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