Followup on MSL: Griffin's spin

By Phil Plait | December 4, 2008 1:00 pm

I just wrote about the delay in the MSL mission. During the NASA press conference, NASA Admin Mike Griffin was asked about NASA’s endemic cost overruns, specifically the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, an ambitious successor to Hubble.

Griffin’s response to this made my jaw drop: he said that JWST is not suffering cost overruns, and in fact "in no way" could you say it is over budget.

Griffin is so overwhelmingly wrong in that statement that I have to say that at best this is incredible spin on his part.

In the late 1990s, when JWST was first being designed, its estimated cost of JWST was about $900 million (that included a ten-year lifetime operations cost, though not the $450 million launch cost).

Its current cost? $4.5 billion.

It’s very hard to reconcile that last number with Mike Griffin’s statement that in no way can you say JWST is over budget. To be very generous, he may be saying that it’s not over budget right now. But the current budget is several times the original one, so again, at best, what Griffin said was spin.

Incredibly, later in the conference, Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Ed Weiler exacerbated this. Comparing JWST to a sample return mission from Mars, he said (paraphrasing from my memory): "Saying a sample return mission would cost [an unreasonably low] 3 or 4 billion dollars is like saying we could build JWST for a billion."

WHAT? Dr. Weiler, that was what NASA originally said JWST would cost!


Now look: I think NASA is worth the money. I am of the opinion that we don’t spend enough on NASA, and that what they do for the money they have is nothing short of astonishing. I understand the public grossly misunderstands what NASA costs, but I don’t think it helps at all for the top leaders at NASA to be saying things like this.

NASA, here’s my advice; make of it what you will: don’t exaggerate. Don’t spin, don’t fold, don’t mutilate. Give it to us straight. Make sure the budgets you present are accurate in the first place. But if they do run over, admit it, apologize, figure out why it happened, put strategies in place to prevent it happening again, and then (to repeat) give it to us straight.

People like me already have enough trouble letting the public know that what NASA does is something humans should be doing. Spin like this is not making it any easier.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

Comments (39)

Links to this Post

  1. NASA | December 4, 2008
  2. NASA | December 5, 2008
  3. SarahAskew » Today I’m in….. | October 14, 2010
  4. SarahAskew » The costs of science | October 14, 2010
  1. What is worth anything on Mars? Discover biologicals or admit it is a valueless dust heap. Send a capillary polarimeter to detect, or not, biological homochirality as optically resolved amino acids. Add an equivalent of Cu(II) to the solutions to increase sensitivity via the Cotton effect. Anything else is Not A Space Agency spinning its wheels in dollar bills.

  2. Sean


    Go ahead and say it: Mike Griffin is lying. He’s a liar. He’s knows the major media won’t call him on it, at least not on camera. He wins.

    When government officials tell bald-face lies, it does the public no service to be diplomatic about it. He’s not “spinning.” He’s not being “mendacious.” He’s not making “untrue statements.”

    He’s lying.

    As you say, “Give it to us straight.”


  3. Timothy from Boulder

    Originally the goal of JWST (back in the days when I worked on it, it was named NGST) was that it cost 1/4 that of Hubble … in the neighborhood of $500M.

    I don’t think that any of the engineers that I worked with seriously believed for a second that was a credible number.

  4. Yoweigh

    lame. why do we even bother with budgets in the first place if they’re just going to be ignored later?

  5. BMcP

    I dunno, I am rather cold on the idea of giving more money to NASA right now. I feel they need to prove they can work on and complete projects without cost overruns that are sometimes literally an order of magnitude before being rewarded with a more generous budget. Right now I feel giving them more money means they will simply waste the larger pot on cost overruns even more. If NASA can show they can maintain cost and efficiency control, then I would be happy to support a larger, more ambitious budget for future space exploration and science.

  6. I agree. Mendacity helps no one and only serves to diminish public trust in NASA at a time when the public is least likely to trust anyone with money. This was exceedingly irresponsible behavior on the man’s part.

    NASA isn’t going to get more money if people think it isn’t honest about its expenditures as is. Can we have two people administrate NASA co-equally? One accountant and one scientist? I mean to ask, what exactly is the problem here?

  7. NASA has to deal with getting money from congress… That right there is a huge impediment. I have worked as a Program manager on a few projects, and sometimes when you give an honest cost estimate, you are told it costs too much, and to revise your figures, but while you are at it, you need to add in these new requirements… That way, you end up sending in a cost estimate that you KNOW is wrong, but your boss won’t let you send in the real estimate. On the BQM-167 project I kept a hold of the original cost and schedule estimates just for grins. Once it was all said and done, the actual was a lot closer to the one I had originally estimated versus the Program Baseline funded. We even came close to a Clinger-Cohen breach.

    The problem lies in the PBBE process really, but the boys at NASA have bought into it as badly as the DoD…

  8. AaronB

    When we talk about the cost of Nasa we seem to think of it as throwing money into a big black hole. This project cost the American Taxpayer $4.5 billion. However, we didn’t throw all that $4.5 billion into the furnace and blow it up. The majority of it went to pay hardworking Americans who put that money back into our economy. I’d much rather spend the money doing that than giving it to Corporate Execs who will use it to take their next $4.5 million dollar vacation retreat.

  9. Phil,

    I was hoping you could follow up with our earlier conversation.

    In response to “Oil, do you understand the difference between time itself and the way we measure it? I don’t think you do.”

    Yes I understand the difference. Time itself is a myth and the way we measure actual physical time (aka motion and change) is flawed.

    “The elements of the physical reality cannot be determined by a priori philosophical considerations [i.e. Newton was wrong], but must be found by an appeal to results of experiments and measurements.” — Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen, 1935

    What unit of measurement is that again? Days or seconds?

  10. Chris A.

    Another statement Griffin made that blew my mind was to the effect of: “We can’t make a reasonable estimate of the cost of a mission until we start actually building it.” Really? How long have we been in this space business? And we can’t project, even within a factor of two (or three, or four, or ten) what the final cost will be? I guess nothing is ever learned about cost estimation from previous failures to get anywhere near the ballpark. More likely, it’s the culture of “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness (more money after the fact) than permission (more money up front),” i.e. you have a better shot of flying your mission by lowballing the initial cost estimates, followed by “but if you don’t give us enough to finish it, all the money so far will have been wasted” than by being honest about its cost from the get-go.

    I think it’s time for tough love: Make a rule that any mission, no matter how expensive, gets mothballed if it runs over budget by a predetermined amount. It’s the only way Congress will have a chance of finding out how much space exploration really costs without feeling like they’re being blackmailed into funding it.

    I used to like Griffin. But now I’m wondering if it wasn’t just “rebound,” given his totally unqualified bean-counter of a predecessor.

  11. Chris,
    Alan Stern tried to do just that with MSL, and overridden by Griffin, had to resign.

  12. Elmar_M

    I think they should rather give the money to the COTS people first and invest it into cheap access to space. Something NASA IS NOT CAPABLE OF DOING!
    Then, when this is done, you can give NASA a higher budget than it has now, since you save in launch costs that would otherwise be spent on inefficient, oldtech, uninspiring and expensive launch vehicles.

  13. JoeSmithCA

    It’s not a spin, its Abbot and Costello Math. 13 * 7 = 28!

  14. K

    Ahh…. government budgeting & its many & varied nuances.

    Here’s what one (probably) needs to understand to put the NASA Administrator’s comments into perspective relative to the “typical” government managed development program:

    1) A government program is advertised & funded. Typically the advertising understates the actual costs (put another way, the most optimistic plan is presented). This is referred to as “buying in” when the contractor does it. It is, in hindsight, referred to as “they don’t have a fing’ clue” when done by govt managers. The process is lengthy & convoluted — this ensures that the participants, after repeating the same cost & pricing prognostications over & over like a monastic chant actually come to believe what they’re saying by the time Congress decides to approve & fund it. Over the past decade this form of fanciful bureaucratic planning has become an art form unto itself. Follow the Defense press (e.g. Defense News; Spaceflightnow, etc.) and the overruns will be observed to be growing in both raw terms and in percentage terms by a staggering degree…but I’m a bit ahead of myself.

    2) Invariably the problems are revealed to be more difficult & costly than planned. Over the past ten years or so–especially in the space-related acquisition arena–technological breakthroughs have been put in the acquisition planning baseline. Of course, this is totally nonsensical as one cannot schedule, much less budget for, technological breakthroughs. But this has been the trend (the USAF has been a particular advocate of this). The GAO has at least one, probably several, audit reports addressing this very problem (look up GAO +SBIRS, for example). A sensible approach for achieving such technological breakthroughs is by assigning the R&D to some laboratory/ies (that’s how it was done in the good ‘ole days)…and NOT some business group whose specialty is taking something that works and packaging it into some larger system.

    3) With problems manifesting like hobgoblins…causing schedule delays and cost increases the program invariably is forced to REBASELINE the acquistion plan. In government bureaucracy-speak this is roughly equivalant to designating the best team in baseball as the winner of the latest World Series….then….a year later….when a new team has won THAT team is the “best” and so on. So after a few years–that’s a few budget cycles and a few project rebaselines–the program’s cost, schedule, and performance will look a lot different. But the rebaselining makes the new plan, including costs, official. That official new baseline becomes the reference point that counts–as far as the government is concerned (just like the current World Series winner is to sports fans). Everything else is just ancient, and largely irrelevant, history.

    In other words, when it comes to government acquisition development programs they simply change the rules after the game has begun.

    THAT’s how the NASA Administrator can say with a straight face and in all honesty (relative to government budgeting standards) that the JWST program is NOT overbudget — because relative to the CURRENT official approved program cost baseline, it probably isn’t.

    And in simple terms, that’s how it works.

    If you think the JWST situation is something, just wait for the Shuttle retirement and follow-on launch system program costs to materialize. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

  15. You’re all yelling at NASA as if it’s the only entity involved; let’s not forget the contractors who also have their fingers in the pie. In addition, there are always very real problems that start occurring once you start “bending tin” that weren’t anticipated and these serve to jack up the price very quickly. I traced that happening with HST back in its day. For that relatively paltry 1.5 billion, we have gotten very good science from it… but I recall in the 90s that the cost overrun trolls were having a field day with HST, too.

    That is not to say that something doesn’t smell right in today’s statements. There IS something weird going on here, and Phil (and all of us) have every right to ask those tough questions about the spin that is being flung our way.

  16. Let’s be realistic about what NASA is. It’s a luxury agency that began for political purposes of helping fight the Cold War in space. After the USSR broke apart, it’s been looked at as nothing more than a Cold War relic by many pragmatic nationalists and space agnostics and unless there’s a major space competition with China in the next ten to twenty years, expect NASA to be hard hit by ever deeper budget cuts. The people who fund it don’t care about science. If they did, they wouldn’t plunge so much money into splashy PR projects like the ISS. That’s what they really care about. Prestige.

    Because NASA knows that it’s surviving on good graces of people who couldn’t give two rats about what it does and what it should be doing (exploring space for science’s sake and going where no one else has the money or resources to go more than once), they’re going to fudge the numbers and try to sneak in more cash for their project through the back door.

  17. Crudely Wrott

    Right Hand: Whah whah waw wow.

    Left Hand: Whah whah wow wohoow.

    Right Hand: Wohoow?

    Left Hand: Yeah. What?

    Right Hand: I thought your knew that wasn’t what I would . . .

    Left Hand: . . . I thought you knew I would say that!

    Casual Observer: Call me when unjustified expectations are not dashed against previously unseen or minimized realities that reassert experience. A basic law may be posited:

    All jobs take longer.
    Corollary: And cost more.

    That’s it. That’s all you need to know.

  18. Charles Boyer

    This is fairly typical Griffin and the exact reason why he needs to go.

    The man has either a major problem with reality or with the truth.

  19. Radwaste

    In the Two Wrongs Make a Right category: the sub I was on went into the shipyard for an 18-month refueling overhaul. Two years later, we came out of dock ahead of schedule!

  20. Gary Ansorge

    The engineer who says the project will cost the most and take the longest is the one who is most likely to be right. He’s also the one most likely to be laid off,,,Which is why NASA can’t get money from Congress for anything if they tell the truth about how much a particular project will cost.

    I’m still waiting for a nuclear powered launch vehicle,,,yeah, like that’s ever going to happen,,,(maybe the Chinese will do it?)

    GAry 7

  21. It’s crazy to think what we spend at NASA in the area of asteroid deflection/course altering in comparison to some of these numbers flying around with the ISS, Mars or the Hubble twins.

    All of them are worthy investments for the advancement of human science, but it’s PATHETIC what percentage is spent on resolving the asteroid issue, or at least the part of it we actually can resolve..

    I say take 1% of this MSL budget and try doing what the guys at the B612 Foundation want to try.

  22. @K “THAT’s how the NASA Administrator can say with a straight face and in all honesty (relative to government budgeting standards) that the JWST program is NOT overbudget — because relative to the CURRENT official approved program cost baseline, it probably isn’t.”

    Dang, this is getting very Clintonian… it all depends on what your definition of IS is, or perhaps Orwellian would be more like it… We are at war with East Asia. We have always been at war with East Asia. (2 weeks later) We are at war with West Asia. We have always been at war with West Asia.

    So much for the guvmint, Feh

  23. Corey

    Nice job Phil. I think you are exactly right in this critique.

    Of course, your previously published works might make the prevention of black hole impacts a more pressing priority for NASA.

    Which is only slightly less ridiculous than convincing people that God is going to turn everyone into a pillar of salt or give us hemmorhoids.

  24. Quiet Desperation

    Well… the project replan in 2005 was budgeted at $4.5 billion, and that includes $1.0 billion for 10 years of operation. So, technically, it is on track according to the replan. The replan is now the official budget. That’s how it works. Yeah, politics. What do you want?

    The launch delay will help spread the costs, and it looks like they may trade observing time to the ESA for a free launch on an Ariane 5.

    put strategies in place to prevent it happening again

    You’re kidding, right? You want to hit budget targets on bleeding edge technology on this scale? Not going to happen. I’ve spent 20 years in R&D satellite work. We push and push and push the edge, and there is *always* at least two major unexpected complications on every project. They tend to be solvable, and we learn a lot from them, but they take time and $$$.

    They say if you don’t utterly fail once in a while, you aren’t pushing far enough.

    I’d much rather spend the money doing that than giving it to Corporate Execs who will use it to take their next $4.5 million dollar vacation retreat.

    Not that I love these loser execs who get rich on their epic failures, but you realize the vacation retreats hire people, too, right? Ever tour the mansions in Newport, RI? People think it’s such an ostentatious display of pre-income tax wealth. Do you realize how many people were employed there? Entire business dynasties of skilled craftsmen and their decedents were started because of those places. The construction and upgrades were never ending, and the household staffs were enormous.

    As long as the money isn’t being hidden in a mattress of a Scrooge McDuck style vault, it’s out there circulating. You want some? Go earn it.

  25. Jeffersonian

    @Qui Des
    That’s what I was thinking, too. Also, perhaps the executive regime change is a good time to make such claims (along with all the freshman/sophomores in congress)? Since new people will have to investigate situations and read reports etc.

  26. Peter B

    AaronB said: “When we talk about the cost of Nasa we seem to think of it as throwing money into a big black hole. This project cost the American Taxpayer $4.5 billion. However, we didn’t throw all that $4.5 billion into the furnace and blow it up. The majority of it went to pay hardworking Americans who put that money back into our economy.”

    While that’s true, there’s the issue of what infrastructure is created with that labour. In NASA’s case it’s a few spacecraft. It’s all too easy for opponents of NASA to say, “Let’s instead pay this money to other engineers and labourers to build roads and houses. That way, the salary money is still spent on Earth, but the infrastructure created is also here on Earth, and benefiting voters…er, citizens.”

  27. You could say the same thing about bailout money being used to line the pockets of wealthy wall street failures and high-flying auto maker execs: that money could be spent on infrastructure: roads, houses, etc.

  28. Peter B

    ccpetersen said: “You could say the same thing about bailout money being used to line the pockets of wealthy wall street failures and high-flying auto maker execs: that money could be spent on infrastructure: roads, houses, etc.”

    I could, but it’s not relevant to the point, even though it’s probably true. My point was that AaronB’s argument isn’t a good one for *defending NASA*. NASA’s supporters should instead point out the benefits society gains from space exploration and exploitation.

  29. My guess is none of you ever work on a budget system. Budgets aren’t absolutes, they’re benchmarks. In NASA’s case they propose a benchmark of costs to the Congress and congress says yay or nay.

    In corporate America they use Budgets to control expenses so they can manage costs as they relate to company value. So if a budget is reaching its capacity they cut costs, reduce functionality or fire people and cut corners. NASA, that isn’t much of an option.

    NASA’s goal isn’t to return an ROI to investors as it relates to profiting from a product line that has controlled/fixed costs – its to get an ROI of knowledge as well as technology that can be passed down to educational, private and commercial sectors. Thats wortha billion times more than what NASA gets today.

    Private industry isn’t going to launch, design, build, maintain a project of this scope (har har har). If we think the dollar is worth more than the knowledge & experience gained from this then as a society were screwed.

    Money is the root of all evil.

  30. timplausible

    What I dislike is that most of the time a project over-runing its budget or schedule is viewed as a failure of implementation and/or a failure of management. No one ever points out that it is just as likely that the cost of the mission is what it actually takes to do the job, and that what went horribly wrong was the planning stage of the mission – initial cost estimates were too low. This is important, because NASA is expected to do great things without failures, yet is also squeezed on the budget side. This sends conflicting messages to planners: do great things, but don’t tell us that it will cost a lot of money. Fixing cost overruns is going to require an examination of this side of the equation, not just telling implementation teams and managers to do their jobs better. Just because people want science and exploration in space to cost less doesn’t mean that it can.

  31. Quiet Desperation

    Money is the root of all evil.

    “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” — Timothy 6:10

    Money itself is a tool to be used for good or bad.

  32. Byron, thanks for saying that. I thought about going there (budget discussions) because I do have some limited experience with these kinds of budget exercises. Explaining them is always tricky… kinda like business calculus, in a way.

  33. KC

    “Make a rule that any mission, no matter how expensive, gets mothballed if it runs over budget by a predetermined amount.”

    Problem is as someone, pointed out up above, NASA projects aren’t allowed to submit realistic budgets. In order to get a project approved they have to essentially lie to Congress. Unless Congress and the public is willing to fund science projects at the appropriate level, including contingency funds to cover those unexpected problems, I don’t see how else it can be done. If we followed your advice, the result would be massive waste and a landscape littered with half-finished projects.

  34. Excellent post and I would like to add the following. Improper reporting of expenditures is only part of the basic problem at NASA. The problem with NASA is that it has been dragging it’s feet for to long. Year after year, and decade after decade, of low earth orbit would make any common American citizen bored of what NASA is doing. If the American citizen gets bored with NASA, then Congress may get bored with NASA. That means less funding. No bucks, no Buck Rogers. The only really exciting science related stuff has come from the unmanned Mars robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been enormously successful, and relatively cheap. The problem is only scientists and technical people get excited about Spirit and Opportunity. If NASA wants to gain the backing of the American people, they need to speed up the process of human exploration of space. Back in the Apollo days, we went to the moon within a 9 year period. Today, it can take 9 years just to get a NASA program approved by Congress. At the rate that NASA is going, private enterprise will pass it in terms of getting humans back into space exploration. And if not private enterprise, then China will gladly take the role of a global leader in space exploration. For news about aviation and space visit Aviation News – For the Aviation and Space Enthusiast.


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