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NASA Space The Almighty Buck Science

James Webb Space Telescope Cost Overruns Adding Up 153

digitaldc writes "The scale of the delay and cost overrun blighting NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been laid bare by a panel called in to review the project. The group believes the final budget for Hubble's successor is likely to climb to at least $6.5bn, for a launch that is possible in September 2015. But even this assessment is optimistic (PDF), say the panel members. Estimates for JWST's total cost to build, launch and operate have steadily increased over the years from $3.5bn to $5bn. Along with the cost growth, the schedule has also eroded. The most recent projected launch of 2014 has looked under pressure for some time. Charles Bolden has ordered a reorganization of the project and has changed the management at its top. Whereas Hubble sees the Universe mostly in visible light, JWST will observe the cosmos at longer wavelengths, in the infrared. It will see deeper into space and further back in time, to the very first population of stars."
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James Webb Space Telescope Cost Overruns Adding Up

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  • by mcelrath ( 8027 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @12:32PM (#34207638) Homepage

    Every big scientific project looks bad when projected onto the one-dimensional axis of cost. They're big, expensive, and the accounting for them is a discipline onto itself. None of this has anything to do with science. The scientific goals of the JWST are laudable and important, and as a society, we need to figure out how to get them done. The US has a substantial problem in this area. The nature of the US congress is that it cannot force any future congress to do anything, include paying for a project they proposed last year. So, every single year, every big scientific endeavor has to fight for its life. Every big project will run into problems and roadbumps along the way, but these are smart people and they can figure it out. The difficulty of the project makes it more important that it be completed, rather than less.

    But what inevitably happens is that Big Science Project reaches some cost overrun or technical snag, or national economics takes a temporary downturn. Gloom-and-doom articles are written. Review panels are formed. Said project gets cancelled next year, after an investment of billions of dollars. You might call it Ares [wikipedia.org] or the Superconducting Supercollider [wikipedia.org]. Meanwhile, countries with more stable funding structures are able to achieve the same goals. You might call them China, India, the ESA or CERN.

    I'm a theoretical physicist. Early in my career, the Superconducting Supercollider was cancelled. It was three times the energy of the LHC. Had the US had the balls to carry forward with that project, we would have discovered the Higgs boson and answered many important questions, as much as 10 years ago already. Yeah there were some political and funding problems but these could have been fixed. I spent several years at CERN. They have a funding structure in which member states pay into a common pot as a fraction of their GDP as an international treaty. When there are cost overruns or problems (recall the magnet explosion last year that shut down the LHC for a year?) the fixed budget means it just takes longer. The project does not risk cancellation. We still get the important science results. As a consequence, they can go for more speculative, long-term research. They are able to drive advancement. The next CERN collider, CLIC [wikipedia.org] has been in the planning and develoment stages for years. It uses new experimental (and still not fully proved) kind of particle acceleration.

    The US will lose in the global science race unless it can establish a more stable funding structure for big science projects, and use them to drive scientific advancement. These things are important. Through the JWST and LHC we gain invaluable knowledge about the structure of our universe. Don't let short-sighted penny pinching bureaucrats or alarmist journalism deprive us of scientific progress.

  • by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @12:58PM (#34207976)

    I'm no scientist, but I thought the whole point of the JWST was that it could do things Hubble can't. Not because it's a "semi marginal" improvement.

    From http://michaelgr.com/2007/05/20/the-hubble-space-telescope-vs-new-james-webb-space-telescope/ [michaelgr.com]:

    So the James Webb telescope will have about 5.8 times more mirror surface area than Hubble, and it will be able to observe on frequencies that Hubble can’t

    That doesn't sound like a semi-marginal improvement. If the JWST had double the mirror surface and operated at the same wavelengths as the Hubble, then maybe you could call it a "semi-marginable" upgrade.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Friday November 12, 2010 @01:26PM (#34208294)

    You always bid on the best case scenario, then specify that changes will require additional funding. If you do the work you said you'd do, at the cost you said, it's not really true that you've underbid it. The problem is that there are things that are unknowable going in. You could try to account for them by adding 50% or 100% to your bid, but that will put you at a disadvantage to the other bidders, and you'd just be pulling numbers out of your ass anyway.

    The bidding process is to select the cheapest/best contractor for the job, not to get a realistic idea of the overall project cost. The bean-counters in Washington know that, but they don't want to put a realistic cost in a bill because they know it won't get funded. Realistically, for this kind of project they should always add 100% or 150% to the bid price to allow for unforeseen problems. Even for a typical infrastructure project they should probably add at least 50% to accommodate change-orders. Then if it's to expensive, they should cancel the project from the start, rather than waiting till they've sunk most of the cost to decide to cancel it.

  • Re:The scary thing (Score:3, Informative)

    by AC-x ( 735297 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @01:27PM (#34208322)

    And here's why [lmgtfy.com]:

    Webb has a large shield that blocks the light from the Sun, Earth, and Moon, which otherwise would heat up the telescope, and interfere with the observations. To have this work, Webb must be in an orbit where all three of these objects are in about the same direction. The answer is to put Webb in an orbit around the L2 point.

  • by Princeofcups ( 150855 ) <john@princeofcups.com> on Friday November 12, 2010 @03:22PM (#34209776) Homepage

    what makes you think this wont support the war in Afghanistan ? we can finally find the tallest man in Pakistan - from orbit - at night

    I know that's meant as a joke, but it doesn't work like that. The reason that we need the telescope in orbit is to avoid the distortion of looking through the atmosphere. Looking down is no different. You would have a very detailed blur.

The moon may be smaller than Earth, but it's further away.