NASA Woes: Hubble's Replacement Behind Schedule; Shuttle Cracks Found

By Andrew Moseman | November 11, 2010 12:26 pm

webbHubble’s successor will be late, and over-budget. So concluded a NASA panel this week that investigate the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next big thing, intended to survey the skies in infrared light with its 18-segment mirror. The word all along has been that James Webb would launch in 2014 at a cost of $5 billion, but the independent review (pdf) concluded that the earliest possible launch would be September 2015, and at a cost of more like $6.5 billion.

The report raised fear that other projects would be hurt. “This is NASA’s Hurricane Katrina,” said Alan P. Boss, who leads the subcommittee that advises NASA’s astrophysics program. The telescope, he said, “will leave nothing but devastation in the astrophysics division budget.” [The New York Times]

John R. Casani, who managed missions like Cassini and Voyager that are the picture of NASA success, led the panel. The technical side of the Webb telescope isn’t the problem, the report found–the management side is. The report faulted the management team for failing to make realistic estimates of the project’s costs and timetable, and further criticized NASA headquarters for not calling the managers on their impractical assessments.

Even to meet the delayed launch date of 2015, Casani says, NASA would need to scrounge up an additional $200 million next year and in 2012. Christopher J. Scolese, NASA associate administrator, said that feat of financial juggle was unlikely. But Charles Bolden, the head of NASA, said he would act on the recommendation to shake up the project’s management.

“No one is more concerned about the situation we find ourselves in than I am, and that is why I am reorganizing the JWST Project at Headquarters and the Goddard Space Flight Center, and assigning a new senior manager at Headquarters to lead this important effort,” Bolden said in the statement. [MSNBC]

All this comes just weeks after Nature called JWST “the telescope that ate astronomy” and wondered whether the telescope’s huge scale and budget would squeeze out other projects, leaving science too dependent on the big machine.

It hasn’t been the best month for NASA, anyway. A planned space shuttle Discovery launch was delayed last week after inspectors found a fuel leak. Subsequent looks at Discovery have now turned up cracks in the external fuel tank that could indefinitely delay the mission.

The two cracks – each 9 inches long – were found on the exterior of the aluminum tank, beneath a larger crack in the insulating foam that covers the 15-story tank. The cracks are in an area that holds instruments, not fuel. NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said engineers believe the tank can be repaired at the launch pad, although it’s never been tried before. It’s unclear, though, whether the work can be done in time to meet a Nov. 30 launch attempt. [AP]

Lastly, a bit of good news: The ever-productive Cassini probe, which surprised its operators by going into safe mode on November 2 in the midst of its grand tour of the Saturn system, should be fully operational again before Thanksgiving.

Related Content:
80beats: Astronauts Bid a Fond Farewell to the Hubble
80beats: A Hot Piece of Hardware: NASA’s New Orbiter Will Map the Entire Sky in Infrared
Discoblog: World Science Festival: The 4 Ways to Find E.T., aided by JWST
Bad Astronomy: The Making of JWST’s Sunshade

Image: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Givens

  • Rory Kent

    What’s the big deal? Just about everything NASA has ever done has been late and over budget.

  • nick

    This makes me wonder what media and management was saying about the Hubble before it launched – no doubt late and over budget (from wikipedia: ‘Hubble was funded in the 1970s, with a proposed launch in 1983, but the project was beset by technical delays, budget problems, and the Challenger disaster. When finally launched in 1990, scientists found that the main mirror had been ground incorrectly, severely compromising the telescope’s capabilities. However, after a servicing mission in 1993, the telescope was restored to its intended quality.’).

    Puts the current issue a little in perspective – especially considering the 20+ year mission of the freaking Hubble and the upgrades it’s gotten and the amazing amount of sh*t it’s done that wasn’t imagined when it was built. So, in 2035 when we’re b**ching about the JWST’s replacement being late and over-budget, let’s remember this moment. :)

  • Andrew Moseman

    Good point; there’s every reason to believe the mission will be great, eventually. I’m much more interested to see if Nature’s warning comes true, and other projects struggle to find funding in the next few years.

  • Andy Taylor

    @ Nick
    I guess history is repeating itself. I’m glad there are some of us who can remember the past.

  • Iain

    Maybe the president can convince the generals to give up one of their procurements, then NASA would have a few billion bucks to play with.

  • Chagrin

    I don’t think anyone working on minimum wage, anyone with a family on unemployment or any of the families of the 13 million children in the US that have no health care whatsoever would appreciate the amounts bandied about in this item as being justified when they wake up hungry and sick.
    But you lot carry on sitting in your comfortable houses, fed and warm, panicking about where the extra cash will come from. I know, take it out of medicare!

  • Stephen Daugherty

    I can feel for your situation, not being much better off, but sir, it’s not government spending that’s making you poor, it’s economic dysfunction from Wall Street Traders who distorted the housing market so they could have more mortgages to base derivatives on, and then leveraged all that up into the stratosphere.

    Cutting spending recklessly would actually put more people in your situation, making the problem worse. What keeps this economic problem going is the fact that so many people are unemployed, and therefore unable to create demand. The lack of demand creates a weak environment for hiring and for the tools that the hired people use to do business.

    Until you get your fellow Americans back to being customers at businesses, you’re not going anywhere, and any deficit reduction attempts are going to come at the expense of an already weak economy.

  • Dante The Canadian

    Chagrin has a valid point however, it was the work of science and technologists that pulled humanity out of the dark ages in the first place. To not fund scientific projects and advancements would be a grave mistake by any government. I also agree with Stephen when he points out that there are several reasons why there are so many people in dire financial straits right now. If Wall Street and the economy in general were run responsibly the financial crisis wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

  • Flashy

    “cutting spending wrecklessly” implies that said spending is done by either taking the fruits of one person’s labor by force and giving it to someone else-also known as socialism-or, simply creating more money (the root cause of this current financial crises, not the ignorant Wallstreet comment above – that was merely but profoundly a feature/consequence). Either way you are dooming everyone to the after effects of inflation – higher prices, and a dollar that is worth less and less over time. Remember, inflation is not a rise in prices, but rather an increase in the money supply. The nasty, job killing and business wrecking, effects (along with a general rise in prices, some profoundly) comes LATER.

    If more spending on space research is what you want, and you can convince enough congressmen to expropriate the wealth of the people to do it, then you need first and foremost an underlying separation of economics and state. Only through the relatively unfettered free market can you ever hope to get these projects funded in ways that would accelerate the process.

    Lastly, we can have a legitimate debate about NASA spending in the first place – I would prefer to see market forces demand goods and services that NASA can supply. But I also see some intangible benefits and the protection of idividual rights that lead me to conclude that it is in my ratinoal best interest to support certain (not all) NASA initiatives. That being said, we’re a long way from the proper incentive/disincentive based funding system for NASA and its insatiable “need” for money.


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