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James Web Space Telescope  (Source: Discovery News)
Hubble's replacement could be killed after years and billions invested

It has been a very long time since the project to replace the Hubble Space Telescope with a new and higher tech device began. Like many other projects that NASA has been working on and projects at other government sponsored facilities, things are under the knife as Washington seeks to cut every ounce of fat from the budget for next year.

One of the projects that NASA is running is the replacement for the Hubble called the James Web Space Telescope. The JWST was unveiled back in May of 2007 and at the time, it was said that the program had met technical and cost schedules for the previous 20 months of development. Somewhere between 2007 and today the program went significantly off course and has come under the knives of politicians looking to trim more budgetary fat.

Discovery News reports that last week the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee recommend that the JWST program be cancelled. Yesterday the full House Science, Space, and Technology committee approved the subcommittee's plans to cancel the program.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made a plea to the committee to keep the JWST alive at the last minute. Bolden said, "I have tried to explain what I think is the importance of James Webb, in terms of opening new horizons far greater than we got from Hubble. I would only say that for about the same cost as Hubble in real-year dollars, we'll bring James Webb into operation."

An amendment to the budget that would have sent another $200 million to the project was voted down. So far the JWST has gobbled up $3 billion and all of that money will be lost if the project is cancelled. The program is estimated to cost $6.8 billion when complete so the cancellation would save over $3 billion.

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By MrTeal on 7/14/2011 12:46:58 PM , Rating: 4
The $6.8B figure is the LCC, the total life cycle cost, and that includes the money after it's been launched.

Here's a quote from the NASA report.

2. Executive Summary
The problems causing cost growth and schedule delays on the JWST Project are associated with budgeting and program management, not technical performance. The technical performance on the Project has been commendable and often excellent. However, the budget baseline accepted at the Confirmation Review did not reflect the most probable cost with adequate reserves in each year of project execution. This resulted in a project that was simply not executable within the budgeted resources.

The estimate to complete the JWST Project at Confirmation was understated for two reasons. First, the budget presented by the Project at Confirmation was flawed because it was not based upon a current bottoms-up estimate and did not include the known threats1. As a result of poor program and cost control practices, the Project failed to develop a reasonable cost and schedule baseline.

Second, the reserves provided were too low because they were established against a baseline budget that was too low, and in addition, because of budget constraints, were too low in the year of Confirmation and the year following (less than 20%) the two highest expenditure years. Leadership at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) and NASA Headquarters failed to independently analyze the JWST Project’s performance and recognize the flawed baseline. The reserve situation was recognized as a problem at the time, as was a degree of optimism in the integration and test (I&T) budget, which prompted NASA management to change the baseline launch date from June 2013 to June 2014 and to add extra reserves in the out years. Unaware of how badly understated the JWST Budget2 was, NASA management thought there was a 70% probability of launching in June 2014 at a total lifecycle cost of nearly $5 billion with the Confirmation budget profile. In fact, the Project had no chance of meeting either the schedule or the budget profile.

Another contributing factor was that in balancing the overall astrophysics program, the Astrophysics Division did not allocate the full funding amount needed to execute the Project. This might have required shifting resources from other programs within the Division. If this was not within its budgeting authority, the Division should have gone on record to the SMD and Agency management that its portfolio was not executable. Instead, the Division accepted the Project’s continuing practice of deferring work and accepted the consequence of continued cost and schedule growth.

JWST is over-budget due to a very over-optimistic initial budget and the refusal to accept that it needed to be changed. However, the project itself is going very well. The $3B already spent has not been wasted, it's been to design and produce what will once operational be an incredibly fruitful scientific instrument. Spitzer is already out of coolant, and while still capable it isn't able to do all the science it once was. Once Hubble's orbit deteriorates in the next few years, there will be a huge gap in observational capacity.

From the start of the project to the end of SM-1 (when they installed COSTAR to fix the misground mirror), Hubble cost $5.8B in FY2010 dollars (ref. same document). If anything, they should find the upper management who somehow thought that the 6.5m multisegmented JWST in the L2 point 1.5M km away would have a total LCC of $3.5B when the LCC of the 2.4m monolithic Hubble cost $5.8B just to get into orbit and have the first servicing mission performed, and fire them.

RE: $6.8B
By quiksilvr on 7/14/2011 1:01:04 PM , Rating: 4
Upper management constantly low balls estimates and throw in the real costs later on. It's just how federal budgets are done.

Is it stupid? Yes.

Is it necessary to convince idiot investors that have no ideal of orbital mechanics? Yes.

RE: $6.8B
By JediJeb on 7/14/2011 1:07:35 PM , Rating: 2
What I have never understood about Congress on things like this is that even if the budget this year needs to be cut, why cancel a project and more or less throw away money already spent when they could put a one year hold on it instead? Why not put in the appropriations bill that this would be defunded for one year with it automatically being returned to the budget next year?

If I spent a bunch of money building a house and ran out of money when I only needed to put in windows, siding and the interior, I would never just walk away from that investment and let it fall apart. I would put in just enough to keep it alive until I could fund the completion. But I guess most of Congress has so much money themselves they would not think of just throwing it away, because if they ever need more they just vote themselves a raise at the expense of everything else. With all this budget wrangling going on I have yet to see them suggest a pay cut for Congress and the President.

RE: $6.8B
By MrTeal on 7/14/2011 1:13:24 PM , Rating: 5
It doesn't work like that, I'm afraid. You have fixed costs on labs, employees, facilities. You can't just take all the parts and store them in a shed in the back, or tell the employees that there's no money in the budget to pay you this year, so some of you can go work over here, and some of you take a year off and we'll see you in the next fiscal year. It gets even more complicated when working with contractors.

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, the way to get the lowest total cost is to raise the budget to where it should have been in the first place. You can spend say $500M for the next 4 years and then launch, or $400M for the next 6 years, or $300M for the next 10. Either way it would get up there, but it's cheaper and gets done faster if you just bite the bullet and fund it properly.

RE: $6.8B
By JediJeb on 7/14/2011 2:06:22 PM , Rating: 3
I guess some private group should pickup the project and finish it then recover the cost by selling time on it for research, which of course would be paid for by grants from the government. That way the government still pays for it just in a more wasteful drawn out way. That would make Congress totally giddy since it is exactly what they like to do.

RE: $6.8B
By Jaybus on 7/15/2011 2:13:28 PM , Rating: 2
They know they have to make cuts. The main concern, when making cuts, is not pissing off the wrong people. NASA gets beat up during budget cuts simply because less people are immediately affected. Cuts in entitlement programs are potentially disastrous, not sometime in the future due to lack of technical progress, but right now, due to angry protestors/voters. Disastrous, of course, meaning that they would be unlikely to remain in office.

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007
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