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The James Webb Space Telescope debacle

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#1 DocM


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Posted 09 June 2011 - 06:45

And people wonder why NewSpace is moving so fast and NASA's stuck in 2nd gear....

Flirida Today....

Telescope debacle devours NASA funds

Hubble's successor is billions of dollars over budget, 7 years late

The mission

James Webb Space Telescope will help scientists look further into space and back in time to better understand the origins of the universe and life itself. Highlights include:


Telescope’s primary mirror is a group of smaller mirrors. Assembled, it’s more than 21 feet across.

--Observatory components must be kept cool using a tennis court-size sunshield, which must be unfurled in space into a sort of umbrella blocking the heat of the sun. The observatory will be kept at almost 400¤degrees below zero.


A million miles from Earth, or four times farther away from Earth than our moon.


Infrared telescope designed to find the first galaxies that formed in the universe.

--Searches for the first light of stars and initial formation of galaxies and planetary systems.

The James Webb Space Telescope, previously named the Next-Generation Space Telescope, has faced a decade of cost growth and delays since the program was green-lighted. Here’s a look at its history:


NASA first starts spending money on technology-development work for what becomes the James Webb Space Telescope.


NASA formally names the observatory after James Webb and selects major contractors.


Cost estimate approved at $1.6 billion. Launch targeted for 2011.


Launch set for 2011; analysis ongoing about whether to blast off on U.S. rocket from Cape Canaveral or European rocket from South America.


NASA gets approval to change launch vehicle and site, picking South America; budget problems lead to first major overhaul of the project. Cost has grown to $4.5 billion. Target launch date delayed two years to 2013. 


Re-planning work leads cost to grow to $5 billion. Target launch date slips to 2014.


Independent review panel led by veteran space project manager John Casani finds major management and budget problems with telescope program, delivering new cost estimate of $6.2 billion to $6.8 billion and a best-possible launch date of late 2015.


NASA is restructuring program, delaying the target launch date to 2018 and conceding budget will go up again.

NASA’s next great space telescope will cost taxpayers at least four times more than planned and launch at least seven years late.

Considered by scientists the most important space mission of the decade, the James Webb Space Telescope project is being overhauled for the second time in five years because of skyrocketing costs and cascading schedule delays.

Decision-makers initially were told the observatory would cost $1.6 billion and launch this year on a mission to look deeper into space and further back in time than the Hubble Space Telescope, in a quest for new clues about the formation of our universe and origins of life.

NASA now says the telescope can’t launch until at least 2018, though outside analysts suggest the flight could slip past 2020. The latest estimated price tag: up to $6.8 billion. NASA admits the launch delay will push the bill even higher.

And, scientists are worried the cost growth and schedule delays are gobbling up more and more of the nation’s astronomy budget and NASA’s attention, threatening funding for other space science programs.

Some fear the dilemma will get worse if the replanning work this summer forces NASA to shift billions more science dollars to Webb to get it back on track.

So, what went wrong? A FLORIDA TODAY review of five years’ worth of budget records, status reports and independent audits show the Webb observatory is plagued by the same, oft-repeated problems that caused most major NASA projects to bust their budgets and schedules.

In short, mistakes included:

--NASA and its contractors underestimated the telescope’s cost and failed to include enough reserve cash to handle the kinds of technical glitches that always crop up in development of a complex spacecraft, including many expensive risks managers knew about.

--Leaders at agency headquarters in Washington and Goddard Space Flight Center in Baltimore, which led the project before the problems came to light, failed to act on repeated warnings that cash flow was too tight and technical glitches too many to meet the budget or schedule.
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#2 Obi-Wan Kenobi

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 06:59

poor NASA...if only...if only... :alien: talk about opportunities lost.....oh well, at least SOME brilliant minds are behind what we'll see (as US citizens), and not some over-regulated program, like NASA's approach....I don't see how cutting NASA out of our budget ever really helped things, but then again, who am I? Oh, that's right...a registered voter, who didn't vote for any of it....I love the thought of extra-planetary exploration, and stood behind NASA since the 80's, but did my vote count in the end? H to the E double EL NO!!! I say, whomever discovers how to build the proper telescopes...RIGHT ON!!!!...but to the US space program? Weeeelllll.....that's another story all on its' own. I just don't want any BS censorship, if there IS life out there, just let us all know, so we can quit giving a darn about a conspiracy....I think the world would be a better place if we'd all just be honest, and not hide anything....NOT like the current US government (and I'm not going all alex jones, either, I'm just stating personal opinion...nothing more, nothing less), I'm just saying... </rant>

#3 neoadorable


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Posted 09 June 2011 - 16:02

this really make me want to cry. i was so looking forward to it going up, it will be a major milestone on our way to proper space exploration. and this incompetence keeps getting in the way! why, Doc, why! seriously, if i was so miserable at what i do i literally would not last a week. how is it that these people entrusted with the future of humanity are so reckless?

obi - a skeptic mind is a healthy mind. while i ultimately do not believe there's any conspiracy, the healthy skeptic is inclined to wonder why it seems our space exploration efforts are almost always held back and seemingly sabotaged at the last minute. this is something that does lend itself well to conspiracy-thinking. however, i believe it's just the result of human negligence, incompetence, short-sightedness, greed and plain old stupidity. going to space is the big and difficult thing everyone knows we'll have to do one day but no one has the cajones to go and do properly. like a lot of things in human history, they'll get around to it for sure when they run out of options. i still believe we will do the right thing before then. i do believe that the realization is sinking in that we are back in the 15th century, it's either fund the ships and become a vibrant empire that leads to an entire new world for humans to inhabit and make their own, or don't fund the ships and sink into mediocrity and poverty. every time i read poverty statistics i feel like screaming, how come the people in positions of power don't realize that space exploration and settlement can literally expand our global economy by a factor of about a million? it will eliminate poverty, it will make us a spacefaring species, another step closer to fulfilling the destiny of any sentient lifeform. i believe we were chosen, and every day we stay exclusively on this Earth, not only are we indeed killing our mother a little more, but we are in fact digging our own grave by way of inaction.

that's the end of this particular rant.

#4 OP DocM


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Posted 09 June 2011 - 20:31

Why? Lots of causes.

To-Down design. Instead of giving line engineers a set of fixed operational goals and turning them loose SpaceX style, they've been designing things in a board room, sending the engineers conflicting goals, then changing things at the next design review, necessary or not.

Political goals. 70% of politicians only think of space in terms of how many jobs and how much pork it brings to their districts. Just the infighting causes delays and needless expense.

NIH - not invented here. Never mind if a new way makes sense and saves money, it's not the way we've done it for the last 50-60 years.

1 does, 10 watch. One guy drives in and torques a screw and it takes 10 inspectors checking him and each other before it gets a sticker, then 6 other people chevk & re-check the paper the sticker was peeled from.

Anal doesn't begin to describe it, but then they let things like shuttle SRB's be fired st subzero temps.

Etc. etc. etc.

You get the idea.....

#5 neoadorable


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Posted 10 June 2011 - 09:34

i definitely do, that was a very good description. it's just horrible that this is the state of NASA and state-sponsored space development. however, i am fully familiar with this kind of mentality from my own work, where the organization has way too many decision makers (i.e. people who get in the way of any progress and common sense) and a chronic inability to just do things because they're good. however, in my profession the future of the species factor is far less relevant than for NASA. thanks again for putting things in perspective. what's your prognosis for the Webb? when will that big boy finally go up?

#6 OP DocM


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Posted 10 June 2011 - 10:19

NASA now says no earlier that 2018, but many analysta are predicting another slip to at least 2021. Cost started out at $1.6B, are now $6.8B and could end up somewhere north of $8B.


#7 Hum


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Posted 10 June 2011 - 10:25

... the healthy skeptic is inclined to wonder why it seems our space exploration efforts are almost always held back and seemingly sabotaged at the last minute.

Should be glaringly obvious the reasons for the repeated, hold-backs in Space exploration.

But I shall wait for you all to catch up. ;)

#8 neoadorable


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Posted 10 June 2011 - 13:34

jeez, 2018...that's just ridiculous. unbelievable.

#9 spudtrooper


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Posted 10 June 2011 - 17:25

I'm not sure why people expected something different. When you're building one of the most sophisticated space instruments to ever be launched from scratch of course its going to cost a lot of money.

With that being said, i'm not happy with the delays, but what did you really expect? Hubble was WAY over budget and extended missions many times over but damn, the science was worth it. JWT will be the same.

Either way, the space telescope pales in comparison to defense spending so the cost is really a dip in the bucket compared to amount of money we BLOW on BLOWing crap up. JSF and 300+ billion comes to mind :)

#10 casper2



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Posted 10 June 2011 - 23:45

I'd cancel the project since there waisting lots of tax payers money. Hell by 2018 i bet they'll say we need more money since there some problem or glitch with The James Webb Space Telescope. If i was president oboma or member of congress i'd kill The James Webb Space Telescope project since there waisting Billions of dollars that could be spent on somthing else like fixing roads or replacing old bridges or somthing else.

#11 neoadorable


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Posted 11 June 2011 - 13:37

blahism - the problem is that lessons from the Hubble were apparently not learned. we're making the same damn mistakes to the detriment of all of humanity.

casper - will give you the benefit of the doubt that you're not just trolling, but this project is more important than the overpass next to your house. besides, NASA is a national agency. fixing roads and bridges is technically the responsibility of your local government. blame them for needing to rely on federal funds to do these things.

#12 OP DocM


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Posted 11 June 2011 - 15:53

If he doesn't like the space or military programs then he should toss his phone service, TV, and most anything else technological because it's either derived from space/military tech or dependant on their architectures.

Internet? ARPANET, a DoD military program.

Camera CCD's? First major use was for KH-11 spy sats.

US Comm satellites? Mostly launched by Atlas V and Delta IV, both developed for the USAF's EELV program, or former Russian ICBM's.

Only recently have US commercial launchers got a foothold, and even here we see military footprints; Falcon Heavy's largest market will be NRO spysats and Falcon 9 has already launched satellites for the US Army and NRO, all as secondary payloads with the Dragon.

#13 guru



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Posted 11 June 2011 - 23:00

can Nasa contract that out to private company completely and get it up before 2018/2021 ?

#14 OP DocM


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Posted 12 June 2011 - 00:52

The problem isn't lack of a booster, it's slated to go up on an Ariane 5. The problems are with the JWSTitself, both design and budgetary. Can't fix those just by moving it to Falcon Heavy or whatever. One example of how late they are is that they have just started testing its mirror panels at the crogenic temperatures it'll encounter. If there's an issue that 2018 date could be very optimistic.

#15 neoadorable


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Posted 12 June 2011 - 04:57

well said Doc, people totally underestimate the catalytic effect space exploration has on every other area of technology. without it we'd be 50 years behind. even the passenger planes we take have gotten progressively safer and better thanks to space. it's important to remember we've only been flying in our own atmosphere for just over a 100 years, and look at how much has been achieved.

as for the Webb, if they're only now testing the mirrors, how the **** did they expect to launch in 2011?