Florida Today is reporting that NASA's next great space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is plagued with schedule slippages and an out of control budget that has roughly quadrupled its initial estimated cost.
The reason for the cost overruns seems to derive from a problem that is endemic with large scale, government funded technology programs, whether at NASA or elsewhere. It often happens that when a project like the James Webb Space Telescope is first proposed, the tendency is to try to low ball the cost as much as possible the better to get it approved by the congress. NASA is not the only organization that does this. Occasionally NASA will deliver an honest accounting of a proposed project, only to have the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, or the Congress cut the proposed funding and suggests that more must be done with less.
Insufficient cash reserves are allocated to deal with the inevitable technical problems that such a project encounters. The inevitable result is that costs balloon, which congress often balks at covering, leading to monies being shifted from other, lower priority projects and scheduling delays.
In an era of flat or even declining NASA budgets, the options are not good. One would be to try to find cost savings be descoping the capabilities of the space telescope. Another would be to try to stretch out the development of the telescope, leading to a much delayed launch sometime in the middle or late 2020s. The other would be to scrap the project entirely and to rethink how to develop a new space telescope.
One thing that does not seem to be an option is for more money to be appropriated to cover the increased costs of the James Webb Space Telescope. In an era of trillion dollar plus deficits, spending more on anything is met with extreme skepticism.
The James Webb Telescope, according to NASA, is a joint venture between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. If and when it is launched by an Ariane 5, it will be deployed in an orbit around the L2 point where the gravity of the Earth and the Moon cancel out, about a 1.5 kilometers distant from the Earth.
The space telescope would image the universe in the infrared range, so it is not a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, which observes in the optical range primarily. It will have a 6.5 meter diameter mirror and a sun shield the size of a tennis court, folded to fit in the launch vehicle. It will image everything from objects formed near the beginning of the universe to extra solar planets.
The telescope is named after James Webb, the NASA administrator during the Kennedy and most of the Johnson administrations.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times and The Weekly Standard.