NASA's new space telescope costs shoot the moon (Update)

Hubble Space Telescope
This is a photo of the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

The cost of NASA's replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope is giving new meaning to the word astronomical, growing another $1.5 billion, according to a new internal NASA study released Wednesday.

NASA's explanation: We're better rocket scientists than accountants. Management and others didn't notice that key costs for the James Webb Space Telescope weren't included during a major program review in July 2008, officials said.

The study says in the best case scenario it will now cost about $6.5 billion to launch and run the powerful, new telescope. And that can happen only if NASA adds an extra $500 million in the next two years over current budget plans. If the agency can't get the extra money from Congress, it will ultimately cost even more and take longer to launch the telescope.

Before now, the cost of the telescope had already ballooned from $3.5 billion to $5 billion.

NASA officials said they had not done a good job of figuring out the confirmation cost for the massive telescope. The report said the budget in 2008 "understated the real requirements" and managers didn't realize how inadequate it was.

"We were missing a certain fraction of what was going on," NASA associate administrator Chris Scolese said in a late Wednesday afternoon teleconference.

The Webb telescope, "we hope is just an aberration," Scolese said, but suggested there may be other budget-busting projects. He said the agency is now reviewing all its projects, not just to find extra money for Webb but to see if there are similar cases of poor budgeting.

The costs aren't because of problems with the technology, design or construction of the instrument. NASA said, technically, it is in good shape. It is designed to look deeper in the universe to the first galaxies. A collaboration with the European Space Agency, the telescope is being built by Northrop Grumman and will be run out of Baltimore, Md., like Hubble.

The fault "lies with us, no question about it," Scolese said.

The Webb telescope is already late. When first announced more than a dozen years ago, it was supposed to launch in 2007. That was eventually delayed until 2014. The new report, issued at the request of the Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., says the earliest launch date now would be September 2015.

Scolese said technically the telescope was not confirmed as a project until 2008 - even though many millions of dollars had been spent on it and NASA had been promoting it since 1998. In 2008, NASA said it would cost $5 billion and that's the number to use for how overbudget it is, Scolese said. But previous numbers that NASA provided said it would cost $3.5 billion.

This follows the well-worn path of the Hubble telescope. In current dollars, it cost NASA $4.7 billion to build and launch Hubble and then another $1.1 billion to fix it in orbit.

Astronomer Garth Illingworth, a professor at University of California Santa Cruz and a member of the internal study team, said Webb will be worth the money.

He said the Webb "is hugely more powerful than Hubble, 100 times more powerful at least."

Explore further

NASA pondering a future grapple on the James Webb Space Telescope

More information: NASA's report:

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Nov 10, 2010
I say cancel the program and let the contractors eat the losses. Fire the people at NASA responsible for this program and start over with a better telescope design. There is criminal mismanagement going on here. This seriously needs to be investigated. The next telescope design should include some type of serviceability much like the Hubble, but via robotic spacecraft.

Nov 10, 2010
'rah' has my vote for next NASA administrator. I'm sure he'd do a much better job than those donkeys sitting there drawing paychecks and taking money under the table right now.

Nov 10, 2010
This is nothing new in government contracts. Quote low to get approval, worry about costs later when it's too late to cancel. Also, has inflation been taken into account in the cost blowout? It surely would be a significant factor if the project is delayed by eight years or more.

Nov 11, 2010
rah: You have the right idea but the wrong outcome. You say: "... let the contractors eat the losses." That would be great, but the contractors will make out like bandits anyway. They already have been paid for the initial cost over-runs and as long as it goes on they will continue to get paid. Then if it is scratched, they still get paid to decommission the project. There is no one to fire? Who will you fire, some nobody in NASA who had no control over the politically connected contractors?

Do you recall when the Corps of Engineers could build a bridge? Not anymore, they hire a contractor. Do you recall when marines stood guard at the gates of the bases in the US were nukes are stored? No more, contractors have the job. NASA is made up of mid-level managers who don't have the technical expertise to run projects of this scope so they leave it to the contractors. (Continued)

Nov 11, 2010
Continued: So, we have inexperienced contract managers managing contractors who are paid 5x their salary and make money by ensuring overruns and lobbying congress. There isn't anyone left in NASA who could really build a space vehicle anymore. They have all left for higher paying contractor's jobs. The contractors are the bane of our federal government. They are the core of "earmarks" and overruns. They make money by NOT getting the job done. NASA has no leverage on them because they have no fall back. They don't have the capability in-house anymore and there are not enough contractors to hire a "new" one. There are not any "new" contractors for NASA to hire. They have all been there before and know how to ride the horse to death. The answer is to take a deep breath. Toss back a decade of loss, fire the contractors and hire fresh new scientists and engineers into NASA to do it in-house. Of course that will never happen because the contractors have rigged the system.

Nov 11, 2010
NASA learned about cost projection from NFL owners building football stadiums.

Nov 11, 2010
"The answer is to take a deep breath. Toss back a decade of loss, fire the contractors and hire fresh new scientists and engineers into NASA to do it in-house"

I would favor keeping the current contractors, but hiring a professional project management and engineering firm to manage the project. Take NASA out of the picture as much as possible. Fire all the NASA enginers and just keep the scientists needed to do the research after the project is airborn. NASA is extremely top-heavy compared to private companies. They need to consolidate old departments, trim down the number of directors and eliminate facilities that don't produce much or duplicate the capabilities of other facilities. Oh, and remove access to the internet at all employee workstations. :)

Nov 11, 2010
I'd like to see some of the people grousing so loudly above try to point out a billion-dollar project on the cutting edge of technology that came in on time and on budget. JWST is pushing the limits of current technology in half-a-dozen ways, and it shouldn't be astonishing that the original estimates of what it would take to build it were way off.

The vaunted Hubble Space Telescope was supposed to cost under $500 million. Cost at launch was three times that, and the total lifetime cost is now pushing $10 billion. But I don't hear anyone complaining about that now.

Nov 11, 2010
It is truly unfortunate that the NASA managers did not account for all the related costs. However, using Hubble as an example, the incredible increase in understanding our universe and the underlying fundamental physics advances that are directly related to astrophysical research from Hubble now and Webb in years to come are well worth the investment. The quest for knowledge is what drives society and ultimately the economy.

Nov 12, 2010
I'd like to see some of the people grousing so loudly above try to point out a billion-dollar project on the cutting edge of technology that came in on time and on budget.
China just completed 5 new CENR reactors early and under budget. Total project cost 23 Billion, estimated project cost, 29.5 Billion.

Nov 12, 2010
How many lawyers challenged their licensing?
The regulations don't allow for a challenge when they're adhered to.
Were the builders motivated by profit or a bullet to the head?
Neither, they were motivated by the needs of the people and the common good.

Is everything money or death with you? You should talk to someone about that. Unchecked greed isn't healthy. I also think your religion says something about serving two masters and Mammon or some other silly shit. Practice what you preach.

Nov 14, 2010
'rah' has my vote for next NASA administrator. I'm sure he'd do a much better job than those donkeys sitting there drawing paychecks and taking money under the table right now.

An actual donkey would do a better job. Why am I paying for this boondoggle, anyway? I say leave the tax dollars at home. If Richard Branson decides to build it, I'll buy stock in Virgin.

Nov 14, 2010
marjon: As usual, your timing is impeccable. You are an inspiration. ;-)

You said "These systems will operate with the new Chinese designed CPR1000 nuclear power plants and will be manufactured in the Rolls-Royce facility in Meylan, France."

So, Rolls-Royce whose engines are being reworked on every Airbus A380 in the world because they blow up(not that there are many of them because of the slippage and overruns) don't give you any pause when the company is producing nuclear plants for China?

Of course not. :-)

Nov 14, 2010
Wow, 1.5 billion more. But when the military needs hundreds of billion more no one blinks an eye. I seem to recall the last Bush league president trying to convince everyone that the war in Irag wouldn't cost more than 100 billion, what's it up to now? Around 700 billion? We spend too much money on killing people. Take 1.5 billion from the misguided wars.

Nov 15, 2010
Whatever happened to contracts with fixed prices? Can't NASA put out a request for bids, and then hold the bidders to the cost? If necessary, they can put out a request for bids on a contract to price it out, and demand a fixed price. If the company doesn't deliver, then they can get their money back.

Nov 15, 2010
Money Grubbing is America's only real occupation at this point.

Odd, isn't it, that it's only ever money "grubbing" when somebody ELSE's money is at stake?

Nov 20, 2010
Nasa says it is not serviceable, however we should look carefully at the blueprints because by the time it is launched 09-15 and needs to be serviced 09-25 I think robots and visimir rockets could readily service this beast. If the blueprints show easily replaceable parts then it is an accounting gimmick to show the total cost as lower than it really is. I personally hope it is serviceable. Am I just dreaming? Does anyone out there actually know if Webb is being constructed in this manner (to be serviced while claiming it wont be serviced)?

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