GAO: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Faces Potential Cost Overruns, Delays

Artist’s impression of James Webb Space Telescope. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is at risk of budget overruns and further schedule delays.

“JWST will also have limited cost reserves to address future challenges, such as further launch delays, and is at risk of breaching its $8 billion cost cap for formulation and development set by Congress in 2011,” GAO said in its annual review of the project. “For several years, the prime contractor has overestimated workforce reductions, and technical challenges have prevented these planned reductions, necessitating the use of cost reserves.”

Last year, NASA delayed the scheduled launch of the massive telescope aboard an European Ariane 5 rocket from October 2018 to a launch window between March and June 2019 due primarily to delays in integrating components on the spacecraft. However, challenges remain that could cause additional delays and cost overruns.

“Program officials said that existing program resources will accommodate the new launch window—provided remaining integration and testing proceeds as planned without any long delays,” the report stated. “However, JWST is still resolving technical challenges and work continues to take longer than planned to complete. As a result, the project is at risk of exceeding its $8 billion formulation and development cost cap.”

A summary of the report follows.

James Webb Space Telescope:
Integration and Test Challenges Have Delayed Launch

and Threaten to Push Costs Over Cap

Government Accountability Office
GAO-18-273 [Full Report]
Feb 28, 2018

Why GAO Did This Study

JWST, a large, deployable telescope intended to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is one of NASA’s most complex and expensive projects, at an anticipated cost of $8.8 billion. Congress set an $8 billion JWST development cost cap in 2011, and the remaining $837 million is for its operations costs. JWST is intended to revolutionize our understanding of star and planet formation and advance the search for the origins of our universe. With significant integration and testing planned for the remaining period until launch, the JWST project will still need to address many challenges during the remainder of integration and testing.

Conference Report No. 112-284, accompanying the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012, included a provision for GAO to assess the project annually and report on its progress. This is the sixth such report. This report assesses the extent to which JWST is (1) meeting its schedule commitments, and (2) able to meet its cost commitments. GAO reviewed monthly JWST reports, reviewed relevant policies, conducted independent analysis of NASA and contractor data, and interviewed NASA and contractor officials.

What GAO Found

James Webb Space Telescope sun shield (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

In 2017, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project delayed its launch readiness date by at least 5 months, and further delays are likely. The delay—from October 2018 to a launch window between March and June 2019—was primarily caused by components of JWST’s spacecraft taking longer to integrate than planned. JWST made considerable progress toward the completion of integration and test activities in the past year.

However, the project used all remaining schedule reserve—or extra time set aside in the schedule in the event of delays or unforeseen risks—to address technical issues, including an anomaly on the telescope found during vibration testing. Extending the launch window provided the project up to 4 months of schedule reserve. However, shortly after requesting the new launch window in September 2017, the project determined that several months of schedule reserve would be needed to address lessons learned from the initial folding and deployment of the observatory’s sunshield (see image).

Given remaining integration and test work ahead—the phase in development where problems are most likely to be found and schedules tend to slip—coupled with only 1.5 months of schedule reserves remaining to the end of the launch window, additional launch delays are likely. The project’s Standing Review Board will conduct an independent review of JWST’s schedule status in early 2018 to determine if the June 2019 launch window can be met.

JWST will also have limited cost reserves to address future challenges, such as further launch delays, and is at risk of breaching its $8 billion cost cap for formulation and development set by Congress in 2011. For several years, the prime contractor has overestimated workforce reductions, and technical challenges have prevented these planned reductions, necessitating the use of cost reserves.

Program officials said that existing program resources will accommodate the new launch window—provided remaining integration and testing proceeds as planned without any long delays. However, JWST is still resolving technical challenges and work continues to take longer than planned to complete. As a result, the project is at risk of exceeding its $8 billion formulation and development cost cap.

What GAO Recommends

GAO has made recommendations on the project in previous reports. NASA agreed with and took action on many of GAO’s prior recommendations, but not on others—some of which may have provided insight to the current schedule delays. For example, in December 2012, GAO recommended that the JWST project perform an updated integrated cost/schedule risk analysis.

  • Robert G. Oler

    like SLS it should have been cancelled a long long time ago

  • duheagle

    Surprise, surprise, surprise!

  • Merisea

    So the contractor… Arianespace, or Northrop Grumman, Ball Aerospace & Technologies? Could we name names?

  • Enrique Moreno

    SLS had no clear mission but JWT has clear objetives.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Wrong names. The people to blame were the folks who formulated the technical requirements and set up the management for the JWST. They low balled the cost and under-estimated the complexity of the JWST.

    They should have a few small pathfinder telescopes to iron out issues that arises from introducing many bleeding edge technologies.

    Well the delays means that NASA have the option of mounting a service mission if required with commercial super heavy lift.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Keep in mind folks Golden (I think) approved this (NGST/JWST) on the stipulation that it come in under $1000 million, and fly by the early 21st cen. This is crazy late and crazy over budget. Lesson learned (again and again and again sometimes) If your original specifications call for a 20 year development period, it’s probably time to back off and let the technology grow organically elsewhere then when your technology required criteria are met by background developments, declare the project at a time when maybe you have one technology development problem and the rest is integration. 20 year development cycles should be reserved for key technologies like nuclear propulsion, space power plants that last 50+ years, mirror casting in orbit, large structures etc etc.

  • duheagle

    Having clear objectives is easy – though there are, admittedly, NASA programs that haven’t managed to get over even this rather low bar (SLS, Orion). Achieving said objectives is the tricky part. The jury is still very much out on whether JWST can back its brag. And, given that the jury seems to have extended its arrangements for meal delivery, a verdict continues to recede into the indefinite future.

  • Search

    They should have named it “Black Hole” since it may consume all of SMD’s funding. How many other science missions has this thing consumed already? Add WFIRST to the list. All for a telescope that will last no more than 10 years. Long after it dies Hubble will still be running. Yes I know they have different tech and capability but 10 years is a pathetic joke after all that money.

  • Search

    It brought lots of work to GSFC so it succeeded.

  • therealdmt

    The aptly nicknamed “Telescope that Ate Astronomy”

  • Robert G. Oler

    well the cost is going astronomical