Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tracking Costs for the James Webb Telescope

It's worth noting the July 6th decision by the US House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) budget to provide no further funding for the over budget and behind schedule James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
A full size model of the JWST, on display in Munich, Germany. Photo c/o EADS Astrium.
Unfortunately, this decision seems to have caught Canadian government officials by surprise, according to the July 7th, 2011 National Post article "Canadian Developed Space Telescope nixed by US Congress."

The article states that "Federal Industry Minister Christian Paradis, at Cape Canaveral Florida with his 10-year-old son to watch the Friday’s final launch of the shuttle Atlantis, seemed to be caught off guard by the development."

Leaving aside the obvious hyperbole in the title of the article, there seems no reason for the Federal Industry Minister to be caught off guard by the announcement to terminate a project which has been hemorrhaging cash and slipping further and further behind schedule for most of the last decade. For example:
Hubble compared to the JWST.
  • The first large formal budget increase (after a series of incremental and largely unpublicized increases) was in 2005, following an "independent" review from JWST contractor Northrop Grumman and the NASA science instruments and support (ISIM) team for the JWST. According to the James Webb Space Telescope Project History website (part of the Space Telescope Science Institute), this first major review was a "financial shock" with costs rising from a pre-review estimate of about $2 billion to 3.5 billion USD and with the expected launch date pushed back to "no earlier than June 2013.
  • By 2010 the project had taken up so much of the US space budget, that it was impacting on other projects. The August 12th, 2010 Spaceflight Now article "NASA says JWST cost crunch impeding new missions" reported that "much of NASA's funding for astrophysics missions is being gobbled up by the James Webb Space Telescope," which is now the "the $5 billion successor to the Hubble Space Telescope." The article went on to state that, although NASA is committed to launching JWST "as close as possible to its June 2014 target" launch date, there will likely be further cost increases. According to the article, "getting JWST launched by June 2014 (the expected launch date at the time), or at least close to that date, will almost certainly require more money than predicted today."
JWST graphic highlighting the location of the "spine."
Current cost of the JWST as of today is estimated at around $6.5 billion USD. As outlined in the July 12th, 2011 Space.com article "Scientists Condemn Plans to Scrap Hubble Telescope Successor" the JWST is presently expected to launch sometime in 2018, assuming of course that the House of Representatives and the US Senate decide to vote against the House Appropriations subcommittee recommendations.

The current JWST cost compares poorly to the Hubble Space Telescope cost at launch (on April 24, 1990 from the space shuttle Discovery during STS-31) of 1.5 billion USD. Even worse, the JWST hasn't launched yet, isn't expected to do so for almost a decade and is already four or more times the cost of the Hubble for the same  period.

Mr. Paradis might want to take the above into account the next time a reporter asks him about the JWST and Canada's participation in the program.


From: Paul Roberts

As an experienced aerospace project engineer with 25+ years designing, building & testing hardware as well as planning and costing programs, is never ceases to amaze me when a huge program, such as this or Constellation (to name just a few), totally blow their schedules and budgets.

Managing large programs isn't easy, to be sure, but basic project management 101 teaches you that you have to know your requirements up front (Item 1) if you are to have any hope of meeting your schedule and budget. You also have to have a realistic risk budget (Item 2) to cater for those things that you don't know going in. Lastly, you have to have the stones to stop everything if it appears you were grossly wrong with either Item 1 or Item 2 and you have to stop everything well before you run out of either money or time. It is beyond me how these things keep happening in the aerospace industry.

It certainly appears as if the contracting agency (in this case the US government) simply doesn't know how to initiate, cost, plan or execute large programs. The F-22 and F-35 programs have had similar issues. The National Aerospace Plane (originated under the Reagan administration and cancelled in 1993) died of the same causes.

Why is it impossible for these programs to be run correctly? There are a lot of programs that do run properly and come in on time and, gasp, even under budget, but many of the largest programs seem to run on forever, spending money every minute.

I work in the space industry and, let me tell you, when we sign up for a fixed cost program, every cent and minute is accounted for. If something is not in the plan, it doesn't happen. If something goes wrong, there is a budget we draw on to fix it and if that budget is expended and the problems still exist, we either don't fix the problem (if it can be lived with) or we use company money to fix it. And, let me tell you, nothing focuses a corporations energy more than to use its own money to fix a problem.

It seems to me that these programs are running on (and on) for a couple of reasons.

First is that the sub-contractors or the agencies looking for budget are simply are not being honest when programs start. The change in the JWST from $850M to $2.5B is an example of that. The fact that the requirements were allowed to change enough to justify that cost increase is simply poor program management right from the start.

Next, there seems to be no rational management of costs and risk budgets. It is simply not credible to state that because no-one has ever done this before, there is no way to effectively monitor or contain costs. Once you start seeing problems that even smell like they might be of a nature that could blow your risk budget, prudent management stops the program and investigates to see if it is really possible to do this thing or not.

The answer may actually be "no, it's not possible."

The response to that answer is to actually stop the program and either reduce the scope to something you can actually do or to stop the program entirely and perform the basic technical development needed to reliably complete the task. In this case NASA seems to be suffering from the inability to say that they do not "have the technology" to build the JWST as advertised and the even more problematic inability to stop the program until they do.

And that is the crux of the problem for this program. If managers are not allowed to stop the program, it is tantamount to giving everyone a blank cheque book for costs and overruns.

Once you become too big and important to kill, then excesses can no longer be contained and everyone knows it. Even the best intentioned small project managers within the program will say, "Heck, I'll over run a few thousand, it's no problem. My buddy over in Dept X says they've been allowed to over run millions, so my little amount is fully justifiable."

Project management 101.
A rot sets in and then you're doomed.

JWST may just be doomed and, perhaps, it should be. Unfortunately, what is unlikely to happen is that the management of the program pay the price for their poor performance. The culture within NASA of late doesn't seem to be capable of effectively dealing with large programs and doesn't seem to be able to appropriately take responsibility for their own poor management performance.

And before anyone starts to blame the contractors, the framework for how any contract is run is created by the contracting agency, in this case NASA. If they have permitted the subs to work on a program without the subs own money being "in the game," it is completely up to the agency to manage the overall program correctly.

NASA has the right and responsibility to ensure that each subcontractor is fulfilling their part of the contract and I'd bet a year's pay that any investigation will not find any irregularities in the subcontractors' performance. It is NASA who is supposed to be herding the cats, and in this case (in many cases) they simply are NOT up to the job.

Until governments find a way for their agencies (this is not a unique US government problem, of course) to not only manage properly, but be held responsible for their failures, this sort of problem is going to persist. As aerospace programs get fewer and more expensive, look for this trend to continue.

Paul Roberts

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