Telescope debacle devours NASA funds
Hubble's successor is billions of dollars over budget, 7 years late
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.
WHERE IT’S GOING
A million miles from Earth, or four times farther away from Earth than our moon.
WHAT IT DOES
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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