JWST: Over and Out?

News filtered through recently that the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is already  threatened with cancellation owing to cuts in NASA’s budget, is now estimated to be around $8.7 billion dollars, about $2.2 billion higher than previous figures. In fact about a decade ago, when I was a lad, and chair of the old PPARC Astronomy Advisory Panel, the price tag of  the NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope), as it was then called, was put at significantly less than one billion dollars.

The implications of cancelling JWST are profound on both sides of the Atlantic. As Mark McCaughrean explains in detail over on the e-astronomer, the European Space Agency has already made a substantial investment in JWST and planned future contributions include the launch and substantial operating costs. The instrument development is nearly finished, but whether there will actually be a telescope to put instruments on remains to be seen. It’s clear that this, together with previous unilateral decisions by NASA, is putting some strain on the relationship with ESA.

There were many who reacted to the initial suggestion that JWST should be cancelled by arguing that it was mere political posturing by Republicans in the House of Representatives and that it could and would be reversed if appropriate campaigning took place. To this end there has been, e.g.,  a letter to the White House Science Advisor (here for non-US astronomers and there for US ones). There’s also been a letter of support from the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA’s administrators have also apparently come up with a plan to divert funds from other projects to support it. These efforts notwithstanding I get the distinct feeling that cancellation of JWST is a very real prospect and it goes without saying that the chances of avoiding it are not helped by  the increased estimated expense.

I’ve talked about this to a number of astronomers and cosmologists over the summer and found very mixed views not only about  (a) whether JWST will be cancelled or not but also about (b) whether it should be cancelled or not. Even astronomers have expressed exasperation with the spiralling cost of JWST and pointed out that if we had known a decade ago that it would take so long and involve such an outlay then it would never have gone ahead in the first place.

So let me try a straw poll:

11 Responses to “JWST: Over and Out?”

  1. Chris Clark Says:

    Why DO space science projects have such a habbit of costs spiraling out of control? Is it just mis-management due to putting academics in charge of such large projects?

    • telescoper Says:

      Projects like this are not run by academics, actually. They’re run by experienced project managers…

      .. and I think the main reason the costs of such things are generally difficult to estimate is that the projects are extremely challenging and there are many unforeseen difficulties. However, I think the management of this particular project by NASA has been particularly poor, which is why it is now extremely vulnerable to the axe.

      • I think this is all true, but it’s also true that the people advocating for such projects have an incentive to be optimistic when estimating costs. I’m not suggesting deliberate fraud, just that, when coming up with budget estimates, people who want to see the thing built will (perhaps unconsciously) lowball various cost projections.

        Of course this is not unique to science projects — it’s likely to happen whenever the incentive structure is this way. I’d bet that cost overruns are much more common than the reverse in most areas.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, when you think about it there’s no shortage of Trojan Horse projects – those whose real cost is far in excess of what was anticipated when they were accepted.

        Perhaps the JWST situation will lead to much greater scrutiny of the processes involved, and lead to the introduction of safeguards.

        Of course if there is evidence that the costs were knowingly underestimated then this could turn into a legal case, but I’ve no reason to think any such evidence exists.

    • space projects of course cost more than most astronomy instrumentation, so their overruns are correspondingly more expensive.

      and almost all astronomy instrumentation projects are trying to build pieces of kit which are: a) usually one-offs; b) technologically demanding (on the grounds that they aren’t worth building if they’re not cutting-edge).

      this means many projects are trying to do things which haven’t been done before, on a budget which is predicated on almost nothing going wrong.

      adding even a small amount of poor management to such a mix soon leads to delays and these inevitably result in cost overruns.

    • On the subject of cost overruns, I agree with Ian, it seems to me the main reason so many large astronomical projects’ costs spiral so high is because one is usually trying to do something which has never been done before. Almost everything on a space telescope, including the telescope itself and the instrumentation, is a one-off. There is little point in proposing the project unless it is going to be cutting-edge, and many times this involves technologies that, at the time of the proposal, do not even exist. My understanding is that one of the main cost overruns of the JWST has been the mirror, which two companies were “developing” using different technologies to see which one would work best. Whether an 8x cost overrun is a record I am not sure.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The Sydney Opera House, albeit not a science project, came in 14x overbudget (and a decade late) even though the larger opera and smaller concert halls were switched to save money, meaning that Wagner cannot be put on properly.

      • Philip,

        You’ve just put forward one of the (many) arguments for SOFIA, and similar “sub-orbital” observing platforms. Any space-based mission, by the time it launches, is using mature (old?) technology, because of the long testing time necessary for space-based missions. SOFIA can use instruments with cutting-edge technology in a way space-based missions cannot.

  2. Dave Carter Says:

    The problem is with the contracts and the contractors, many of the contractors are experienced in the defence industry, or have CEOs who are ex-defence contracting, and in that industry escalating the cost after the contact is signed is de rigueur (hope I havn’t messed up the French there). When you tell them the price is fixed and there is no more money they look at you blankly, that concept is alien to them.

  3. […] $600 million. About a decade ago cost overruns, NASA budget problems, and technical hitches led to suggestions that it should be cancelled. It turned out however that it was indeed too big too fail. Now it is set for launch in December […]

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