The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

A full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope on display on the National Mall in Washington in 2007. The fate of the telescope may be in the hands of the people working in the building visible in the distance: the US Capitol. (credit: J. Foust)

Space science caught in a Webb

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Few would deny that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or frequently just called Webb), if and when it is ultimately launched, would make major discoveries in astronomy. With a mirror 6.5 meters in diameter and a design—from its giant sunshade to its location at the Earth-Sun L-2 point, 1.5 million kilometers away—optimized for observations at infrared wavelengths, Webb will have capabilities unlike the Hubble Space Telescope or groundbased counterparts. Astronomers expect Webb to provide new insights into the formation of the first stars and galaxies, the creation of planetary systems around other stars, and perhaps a better understanding of the dark energy that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, among other areas of research.

“I am deeply troubled by the escalating costs for the JWST,” Sen. Mikulski wrote in a letter to NASA requesting a review of the cost and schedule of Webb.

There’s just one problem: a telescope as capable—and as complex—as Webb is proving to be extraordinarily costly as well. Once projected to cost roughly a billion dollars and launch in 2008, Webb is now estimated to cost eight times as much and launch a decade later. That growing cost, coupled with budget pressures that are affecting discretionary spending throughout the federal budget and not just NASA, is generating debate about whether Webb is worth the price, and what other science programs would have to be sacrificed to pay for it. It also reflects a more fundamental problem: how do you put a dollar value on space science?

Growing cost, growing concerns

The price tag for Webb, like the universe it plans to observe, has been expanding. When astronomers prepared their decadal study in 2000, prioritizing ground- and space-based observatories proposed for the next decade, NASA provided a cost estimate for what was then known as the Next Generation Space Telescope of $1.2 billion. That was for a spacecraft that at the time planned to have an eight-meter mirror, and also included ten years of mission operations. With planned contributions by Europe and Canada, the decadal survey report put an estimated cost to NASA for the telescope at approximately $1 billion when it made the telescope its top priority for the coming decade.

In retrospect, that cost estimate seems hopelessly naïve given the historic cost growth of major space projects, particularly those dependent on new technologies. By 2006, as work on the telescope started to ramp up, so did the costs: from $1 billion to $2 billion and then to $3.5 billion, even as the diameter of the telescope’s mirror was reduced from 8 to 6.5 meters. At the time officials blamed the increase on “undercosting” original estimates to develop Webb. “So if two independent committees look at it and say that they really haven’t screwed up but that the amount of money allocated to the mission was a billion and a half low, then I would refer to that as an undercosting, not an overrun,” Mike Griffin, then-administrator of NASA, said at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington, DC, in January 2006. He added that while he was more confident in the revised cost estimate, “I would never characterize any large aerospace project as being immune from overruns.”

That turned out to be sage advice, as the price tag for Webb continued to creep up while its schedule stretched out. By 2010, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a major advocate for the telescope (in large part because the two facilities responsible for Webb’s development and operations, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, are located in Maryland), requested NASA carry out an independent assessment of the cost and schedule of the telescope in order to get a better grasp on the issues driving its cost growth. “I am deeply troubled by the escalating costs for the JWST,” she wrote in her letter to NASA requesting the review. “Simply put, NASA must manage the cost and schedule of its large scale programs to the highest standard.”

That study, chaired by veteran JPL program manager John Casani, was completed last October and offered more bad news. “As a result of poor program and cost control practices, the Project failed to develop a reasonable cost and schedule baseline,” the report concluded, finding that while NASA thought that Webb had a 70-percent chance of launching in June 2014 at a total cost of $5 billion, “the Project had no chance of meeting either the schedule or the budget profile.”

Instead, the report concluded that Webb’s minimum total cost would be $6.5 billion, assuming the spacecraft was launched in September 2015. That, however, assumed that the project would get an additional $250 million above its budget request in both fiscal years 2011 and 2012. With the report coming out very late in the 2011 budget cycle, and with additional complications in the budgeting process, including a series of continuing resolutions that dragged out the final resolution of the budget until this April, that additional funding was not forthcoming, suggesting that the telescope’s cost would increase and its launch date further delayed.

“Without additional funds to NASA, JWST should not be restored unless and until an open science community assessment is made of value of what will be gained and what will be lost across the NASA science portfolio,” wrote a group of scientists last week.

Since then the future of Webb has been in flux. In its fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, NASA requested a relatively flat budget for the telescope going forward: $355–370 million a year from 2012 through 2016. Those figures were thought to be placeholders, though, as the agency also noted that it was performing “a re-planning activity to determine a feasible and appropriate the schedule for completing the remaining work on JWST given the budget provided.” This summer, the agency confirmed reports that the Webb’s new estimated budget was $8 billion through launch ($8.7 billion when including five years of science operations after launch), with a launch date now of 2018.

That revised budget and schedule has put the program in jeopardy. In July, the House Appropriations Committee decided to provide no funding for Webb in the bill that would fund NASA in 2012, a move that could effectively cancel the program if enacted. In a report accompanying the bill, the committee said that it was making an example of Webb in order to call attention to endemic problems with cost and schedule estimates of agency programs. “Although JWST is a particularly serious example, significant cost overruns are commonplace at NASA, and the Committee believes that the underlying causes will never be fully addressed if the Congress does not establish clear consequences for failing to meet budget and schedule expectations,” the report noted.

Circling the wagons and shooting inward?

One would expect that the House committee’s move to zero out funding for Webb would galvanize astronomers to rally in support of the telescope. The AAS, for example, said last month it has been meeting with congressional staffers about the program, while providing advice for astronomers about what they can do to show their support for the telescope.

Support for Webb has not been universal in the astronomy community, however. Some scientists are concerned that, in an era where NASA’s budget will remain flat at best for the foreseeable future, an increase in costs for one program, like Webb, will come at the expense of other science programs, be it other astrophysics missions or those in planetary sciences and heliophysics. Recently, some of those scientists have started to speak out.

“We believe it is time to have an open debate on JWST and its value across all targeted communities, from planetary, Earth science, and heliophysics to human spaceflight,” stated an editorial published last week in the Planetary Exploration Newsletter, signed by 17 prominent scientists. They expressed particular concern that budgets for NASA’s planetary science programs “are now threatened to cover current and future JWST cost overruns.”

“There are important national priorities in space beyond the goals of JWST that as a country we cannot afford to sacrifice,” they continue. “Without additional funds to NASA, JWST should not be restored unless and until an open science community assessment is made of value of what will be gained and what will be lost across the NASA science portfolio.”

“What I am encouraging my planetary colleagues to do is to speak out strongly in support of planetary exploration, but to resist the temptation as a broader space science community to circle the wagons and start firing inward,” said Squyres.

Solar scientists have similar concerns. In a letter last week to the chair of the heliophysics section of the American Geophysical Union, David Alexander, chair of the Solar Physics Division (SPD) of the AAS, worried about the impact that fully funding Webb would have on studies of the Sun. “The SPD fully supports the science goals of the JWST and the priorities of our colleagues in astronomy and astrophysics; however, it is extremely worrisome that the proposed solution to the problem will further reduce the ability of the other divisions within the NASA Science Mission Directorate to accomplish their own nationally sanctioned scientific programs,” Alexander wrote.

These arguments create at least the perception of dissention within the ranks of the astronomical community that some worry could devolve to internecine strife among astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and solar physicists over limited budgets. “It is a budgetary threat that NASA has to figure out how to absorb,” Steve Squyres, the Cornell University planetary scientist who chaired the most recent planetary sciences decadal survey released earlier this year, said Friday at a presentation about planetary exploration on Capitol Hill organized by The Planetary Society. “What I am encouraging my planetary colleagues to do is to speak out strongly in support of planetary exploration, but to resist the temptation as a broader space science community to circle the wagons and start firing inward.”

A no-win scenario

Despite the concern over the last two months that Webb might be cancelled, it’s likely that the program will survive with at least some funding for 2012 and beyond. The Senate has yet to take up its version of an appropriations bill to fund NASA, but Sen. Mikulski chairs the key appropriations subcommittee with oversight of the space agency. In a statement in July, she called the decision her House counterparts moved to withhold funding from Webb “a shortsighted and misguided move” and called on the White House to “step in and fight” for the telescope.

Among those attending The Planetary Society event on Capitol Hill on Friday was Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who serves on the appropriations subcommittee that decided in July not to fund Webb. In comments during the question-and-answer portion of the event he expressed concern that planetary missions, including a potential mission to Europa that is a personal favorite of his, could be “devoured by the cost overruns of the Webb Space Telescope,” he said. “We cannot allow any of these great missions to falter or fail or be underfunded because of the overruns on Webb.”

However, in a brief interview after the event, Culberson said it was likely Webb would get some funding restored before the 2012 budget cycle ended. “I’m confident it’s going to be restored,” he said, calling the move by the appropriations committee not to include funding for Webb “a shot across the bow” to get NASA’s attention and encourage the agency to provide an updated plan, with accurate cost estimates, for completing the telescope. “We’re absolutely going to protect the Webb mission. You just can’t do it at the expense of these others.”

There is no simple calculus, no widely-accepted return on investment equation, to determine if a dollar spent on something like Webb will provide more value than a dollar spent on a smaller astronomy spacecraft or a Mars sample return mission or a satellite to monitor the Sun.

Even if that funding is restored and work on the mission continues, Webb will have a major effect on space science efforts unrelated to any scientific discoveries it may make. It’s one of the few high-priority astronomy missions identified in the 2000 decadal study to make progress towards launch, and the outlook is no better for those missions identified in the 2010 astronomy decadal survey. Speaking at a workshop on suborbital research held last Wednesday at NASA Goddard, Webster Cash, an astronomer at the University of Colorado, said there was growing skepticism in the astronomy community that the top-priority large mission from the 2010 report, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), would even be started.

“It’s bleak out there. Space science has effectively ground to a halt” in large part because of the costs of Webb, Cash warned. Killing Webb would cause major problems for astronomers since it would deprive them of an instrument they have been counting on for years to address some of the major questions in the field, but continued funding could leave them with nothing but Webb. “We’re facing a no-win scenario here in astrophysics,” he said.

The problem with Webb illustrates a larger issue: putting a value on often disparate space science priorities. Scientists have done a good job prioritizing missions within their disciplines through the use of decadal surveys, and the latest astronomy and planetary science reports made a stronger effort to accurately estimate the cost of those missions. But it’s still up to NASA—and, eventually, appropriators in Congress—to synthesize those various priorities into a portfolio of missions that can fit into a budget that may, at best, remain flat for the next several years as Congress seeks to reduce budget deficits by reining in discretionary spending. There is no simple calculus, no widely-accepted return on investment equation, to determine if a dollar spent on something like the James Webb Space Telescope will provide more value than a dollar spent on a smaller astronomy spacecraft or a Mars sample return mission or a satellite to monitor the Sun.

While NASA has shown a new commitment to accurately estimating the cost of Webb, it’s unlikely it will be the last time that a major NASA science mission goes significantly over budget. And next time the decisions may be even harder, as scientists seek more ambitious—and expensive—missions while overall budgets remain flat. Webb’s biggest discovery may turn out to have nothing to do with the origins of the universe or the nature of dark energy, but instead with what happens when overly optimistic cost and schedule estimates clash with reality.