Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Government NASA Space United States Politics Science

How the Webb Space Telescope Got So Expensive 133

Posted by timothy
from the pity-we-can't-short-the-stock dept.
First time accepted submitter IICV writes "Ethan Siegel of Starts with a Bang has done some research on how and why the James Webb Space Telescope's price tag ballooned. Quoting: 'Something wasn't adding up. How could the telescope be more than three-quarters complete after $3.5 billion, but require more than double that amount to finish it? Also, how did the launch date get bumped by three years, to 2018? And how did 6.5 billion become a disastrous $8.7 billion so quickly? So I did a little digging around, and perhaps a little investigative reporting as well, and got ahold of a Webb Project Scientist who's also a member of the Webb Science Working Group.'" Whether or not you buy the argument that the money's well-spent (at $5 billion or $8 billion, or either side of these), even the work in progress is beautiful.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

How the Webb Space Telescope Got So Expensive

Comments Filter:
  • by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Saturday September 10, 2011 @04:40PM (#37364100)

    How the Web space telescope became so expensive? Connectivity through Comcast, no doubt.

    Hmmm. And First Post?

    • by flaming error (1041742) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @04:45PM (#37364126) Journal

      It's the same as software. The first 90% of the code takes 90% of the budget, the final 10% takes the other 90%.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        And it's due to those pesky beancounters. You know that there are 3 types of people in this world? Those who can count, and those who can't.

      • Re:I know, I know... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by hey! (33014) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @06:41PM (#37364580) Homepage Journal

        Wrong scenario. It's more like this one I actually was in where I was asked to estimate the cost of responding to an RFP and came up with 150K. Boss asked me whether it could be done for 100K, and I told him by cutting our profits to the bone and taking the narrowest possible interpretation of the RFP, it was possible, but the risk was unacceptably high. Two weeks later signed a contract to do it for 50K. When I asked him why, he said he could spread the cost by selling it to more customers. I told him that only diluted our focus on the project and that to productize it would cost us almost a quarter of a million.

        The upshot is that we couldn't afford to undertake the project except with slack resources. By the time we were done we had functional software, but it cost us the equivalent of 200K (which we couldn't charge). It took us so long to finish that we never got even the 50K from the customer, because management had turned over twice in the meantime and had no idea what the project was about. Then the boss sold the "product" to a second customer (over my objections) for 50K and that cost us another 200K, and we never saw that money either.

        Fiscal responsibility isn't just not spending money on things you don't need. It's also not committing yourself to projects you aren't willing to pay to do a proper job on. Spending less than what it would reasonably take to do a project is like flushing cash down the toilet.

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          Ah, yes ... sell at a loss and make it up on volume.

          I've seen that one before. It didn't work out any better. :-P

  • by Beelzebud (1361137) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @04:50PM (#37364144)
    The whole project, with budget over-runs, is still cheaper than 1 month in Iraq...
    • by jcr (53032)

      Getting stabbed isn't as bad as getting blown apart, but I'd still prefer not to be stabbed.

      -jcr

    • by c6gunner (950153)

      The whole project, with budget over-runs, is still cheaper than 1 month in Iraq...

      Even better, the whole project, with cost overruns, is still cheaper than a week of medicare!

      Are we done with the pointless comparisons, now?

  • by perpenso (1613749) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @04:57PM (#37364160)

    How the Webb Space Telescope Got So Expensive?

    Obviously it was the shipping and handling charges.

    • by Smallpond (221300)

      That's it -- a space launch is ALL shipping and handling. No wonder NASA failed to keep the shuttle program going. They should have given it to someone who knows how to transport stuff inexpensively, the US Postal Service. While FedEx charges me $30.00 to send an envelope door-to-door across country, USPS does it for $0.44. The only large cost would be converting the shuttle fleet to right-hand drive. Then we'll have those costs down in no time.

      PS - there's one diaper-wearing astronaut who would be per

    • by Botia (855350)

      How the Webb Space Telescope Got So Expensive?

      Obviously it was the shipping and handling charges.

      Act now and a second for free! Just pay the additional shipping and handling.

  • by shoppa (464619) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @05:02PM (#37364178)
    1st Corollary to Hofstadter's Law: It always costs more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

    Hofstadter's original law actually only applies to time (not money). Typical usage: A couple years ago the NYC MTA Canarsie line "next train" countdown signs, originally a two year project, were running a couple years behind, and projected to take 5 years to complete.
    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @06:12PM (#37364466) Homepage

      Another law from time immemorial:

      A poorly planned project takes three times as long to complete as planned.

      A carefully planned project only takes twice as long.

    • by syousef (465911)

      1st Corollary to Hofstadter's Law: It always costs more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

      Sounds like a recursive algorithm. Meaning everything costs $infinity.

      Which size infinity I don't know. Comparing infinities in Uni maths class just made my brain hurt.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Real inflation not accurately reported with the current CPI is about 9% a year, so sounds about right.
  • by RogerWilco (99615) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @05:17PM (#37364240) Homepage Journal

    You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up.

    And then there is the whole complexity of getting it funded in the first place. And the smoke and mirrors that come with that. The most fun we had was getting funding for the hardware but not the software. The project is one year over schedule, the hardware is done, but the software...

    • by bcrowell (177657) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @06:25PM (#37364506) Homepage

      You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up.

      It's an order of magnitude bigger than the Hubble, and they bid $0.8 billion initially, which is less than $2.5 billion the Hubble cost to build and launch. I wouldn't call that unforseen. It was simply massively underbid.

      • Some budget creep can be expected, particularly on R&D projects. However an order of magnitude? That means you were either incompetent, or lying. I've certainly had projects at work that cost more than initially projected. Things go wrong or there are unexpected other needs. However 10 times the price? Hell no. If something hit double the price I'd have to think it would indicate a large fuckup on my part (or a massive change in scope).

        So one way or another, something went massively wrong. Either a comp

        • by Pikoro (844299)

          I believe he is talking about the size and scope (capabilities, no pun intended) of the physical telescope, not the money for the project.

      • by tgd (2822)

        Hubble's cost was a good bit of funny math, though ... remember, its basically a Keyhole spy satellite turned around, with their development costs shared with it.

    • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @06:30PM (#37364534)

      You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up

      Which is why one hires good system engineers who have managed large projects before, and have a feel for how much to keep in reserve to deal with those things. Not to go totally Rumsfeldian, but there are known issues or unknowns, and you can generally budget for that. You want to make sure to understand the project well enough that you're not walking into things you don't even realize are problems.

      This is why you can't just hand control of a project to a team of scientists without putting someone in charge who can understand the issues and budget for them. Otherwise you're handing over a blank check.

      And I'm saying this as a scientist.

      • by Surt (22457)

        I can assure you that there were layerS of project management professionals between the scientists and the budget that got delivered to congress. Obviously, that didn't help. Quite possibly it hurt, as there were people who were motivated to lowball estimates in order to secure funding, and then cross their fingers hoping that additional funding would come through once the project was deep into spending.

    • by khallow (566160)

      You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up.

      There are three things to note here. First, the various technologies of the James Webb Space Telescope have been done before. We've had space telescopes before. We've put things in Lagrange orbits before. Same goes for cryogenic cooling and large, wide objects. The various features of this instrument have been done at some scale in space. It's not a true "nobody has done before" thing.

      Second, the instrument was made by people who should be very good at giving cost estimates for things like this. Grab a p

  • Synopsis (Score:5, Informative)

    by Lexx Greatrex (1160847) * on Saturday September 10, 2011 @05:21PM (#37364270) Homepage Journal

    Thank you for a very nice piece of investigative journalism. I summarize my understanding of it as follows:

    The JWST budget did not include provision for technical and other problems that are expected to happen on large speculative projects such as this.
    Oversight failed to act on warnings that budgets were being exceeded and schedules were drifting.
    When oversight finally pulled the plug, parts of the project were near completion (implying that a 2014 launch date may have been possible).
    Attempts to salvage any of the billions invested will incur significant additional costs due to loss of staff and the dissipation of knowledge, pushing any possible launch date close to 2020 and a budget four times the size of the original estimate.
    Congress is shifting the blame entirely to NASA; seemingly avoiding responsibility for its part in appropriating public money without either due diligence or proper oversight.

    Sound like business as usual.

    • Re:Synopsis (Score:5, Informative)

      by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @05:32PM (#37364324) Homepage
      That is by and large a fair summary but there's an important part of TFA that also comes up: A large part of the added cost could have been avoided if Congress had just given an additional 250 million for a launch date in 2015. If that had occurred this would be only a few hundred million dollars over budget.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Raenex (947668)

        A large part of the added cost could have been avoided if Congress had just given an additional 250 million for a launch date in 2015.

        I find it hard to believe that a lack of $250 million ballooned into several billions of dollars. The article cites a supposedly independent review, but doesn't go into any detail about the math. It just sounds like activist propaganda. Sorry, I like science too, but let's be honest.

    • by roc97007 (608802)

      In other words, business as usual...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    When has a large government project been under budget or ahead of schedule?

    F35
    FBI's Sentinel project
    FAA's En Route Automation Modernization

    • by QuantumG (50515) *

      See the previous Slashdot story. GRAIL is an example of a program that should be rewarded while JWST is an example of program that should be cancelled. But in the bazarro world of NASA, programs that come in under budget on development get cut in operations to pay for the programs that are struggling in development. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

  • by arcite (661011) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @05:31PM (#37364318)
    The dollar is being systematically debased.
    • Technically, the dollar is baseless.

    • Exactly. They should add space telescopes to the price index so that we have a clearer understand of inflation. Bastards in Washington are screwing us by not including this shit.
    • I don't understand your comment. If the dollar is being devalued, then shouldn't the project end up becoming cheaper for us?

  • These things seem inexplicable to me. Surely people are capable of factoring inflation into their calculations? Here in the UK, we signed off for two aircraft carriers (Queen Elizabeth class) for £3.1bn. Now we're laying down two, will only have enough aircraft to put one in service, and the total cost has ballooned to nearer £6bn. Why? I'm guessing the people who commission these things are being screwed by the contractors, or are really genuinely incompetent.
    • It rather seems that your military procurement folks are worse off than hours. Which is a truly scary concept.

      The Register (I know, not the most neutral or sane of journalism outlets, but still) has run a series of articles on the Nimrod sub hunter [theregister.co.uk]. This was a 1940's era jet refitted as a submarine hunter (ala the Lockeed P3) but at a cost that rivaled the shuttle or a B2.

      Truly outstanding.

      But you do draw an unnecessary inference - the British military procurement office can be incompetent AND the contrac

      • Welcome to 'civilization'.

        In your case, wouldn't that be 'civilisation'?

        • by cffrost (885375)

          Welcome to 'civilization'.

          In your case, wouldn't that be 'civilisation'?

          Pino Grigio is British, ColdWetDog is American; (as well I could infer from the contents of their respective posts).

      • by UpnAtom (551727)

        Two main reasons:
        1. British Aerospace have almost as access to the PM as Murdoch.
        2. The PM and defense minister were Scottish ministers ordering jobs for Scotland. They were also Labour ministers, spending money like no tomorrow 6 months before Bear Stearns needed a massive bailout.

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @06:17PM (#37364486)

    There are two commpeting forces at play here. Three if you include the people responsible for the budget.

    The first and most obvious group is the scientists who first proposed the telescope and want to use it.

    The second group are the people contracted to build it. These are the ones with all the power and the most to lose. Once the JWST is finished and launched they are (mostly) out of as job. As a consequence they have a selfish interest in making the design,development, testing and integration take as long as possible - simply to preserve their jobs and income. Now that's a fairly extreme description. I'm (almost) sure that nobody actually goes out of their way to sabotage it, or malinger. It's just that as with any project, there's always the possibility to improve things: tweak the spec. here, add another 0.05dB to a noise margin there ... and so it goes on; With no hard and fast deadline in the offing, there's nobody to say "it's absolutely got to be finished by <date>". Military projects in peacetime suffer exactly the same project creep and delays, for exactly the same reason.

    The deadline is the key - that's why the moon landings happened on time. That's why wartime projects (when people are dying for lack of a solution) turbo-charge innovation. The JFDI attitude is paramount and without a launch date to work towards (or at least without a credible one, that absolutely MUST be met) the contractors are always going to be suggesting improvements, not overcoming delays and problems and finding more expensive options for problems.

    • by Baloroth (2370816)

      I think it also has to do with deliberate underestimation of costs and time. If 2 contractors bid on a project, and one gives a $3.5 billion 3 year estimate, while the other gives, say, a $5 billion and 4 year estimate, government managers will go for the first. After 3 years, the first contractor (who bid low) can of course not finish with just $3.5 billion, so he asks for more money and time, which the government is forced to pay unless they want to have wasted money. Had they gone with the realistic cont

      • by trout007 (975317)

        That is part of the reason. I've worked all sides of contracts. I've worked in contracts between private companies and between government and private companies on both sides of the contract. Here is my reasoning.

        When I worked in private industry on engineering contracts we tended to want to do a good job and get it done on time and budget. It didn't always happen. But the idea was if you did a good job you would earn their trust and could get more work in the future. If there was something in the design tha

    • by EnsilZah (575600)

      I have no understanding of the big contractor working on a government project world, so maybe someone could explain to me why when a contractor bids for a project like this and doesn't meet the budget or deadline they don't just have to eat their losses and get fined for not completing on time.

      I know there is no real comparison, but I'm working on a video project for someone that's taking up more of my time than I anticipated and is generally not really worth the effort but once we've decided on a price it'

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Often enough the contract comes with the requirements that are to be met, but funny enough the requirements are never quite right the first time. Every time the client comes back to change the contract gives the contractor another opportunity to raise the rate. Contractors can intentionally lowball bids because they know it will be renegotiated umpteen times.

      • by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @11:46PM (#37365796)
        Well, the policy described has changed a lot in recent years. I work for a large defense contractor (not going to throw names), and while I don't work in contract procurement, I do have an understanding of how things have been changing.

        At one time, it was common practice to underbid by a lot, then charge a lot to get stuff done right because the gov't contract selection process was abusive, and so contractors had to abuse the system back to level the playing field and turn a profit.

        The gov't then started putting a stop to this by forcing contractors to deliver on the original budgets, or otherwise risk lose contracts in the future. Contractors responded to this by abusing employees and benefits to pick up the difference (for example, at one time it was an unspoken rule or so that one had to work up to the overtime kick-in of 46 hours per week (6 hours/week of free work), or otherwise be first on the chopping block when budget cuts came out). However, the gov't saw what was going on (contracts across the board weren't increasing in price as expected) and put a stop to that as well (forcing all hours to be billed to the gov't, regardless of whether the company pays for it in overtime).

        Now contracts are more expensive, and budgets are more tightly and carefully managed, teams are run leaner (that is, fewer people have jobs), but fewer contracts are going way over budget at the same time. At the same time, any scope creep is now added to the project's budget, instead of being absorbed and then rebounded as a cost overrun.

        It really has been quite a paradigm shift in the past 3 years or so.
    • by dbIII (701233)

      That's why wartime projects (when people are dying for lack of a solution) turbo-charge innovation

      The "Liberty ships" were a very well documented example of it instead being an excuse to take what was well known at the time as dangerous shortcuts while profiting as if the shortcuts were never taken at the expense of taxpayers, purchases of war bonds and ultimately the lives of sailors. Never underestimate the greed, stupidity and disinterest of unsupervised private management that suddenly has their snouts

    • by Tablizer (95088)

      The deadline is the key - that's why the moon landings happened on time.

      Also the fact that the Soviets were getting close to a launch (or at least made it appear that way). The enemy breathing down your back is grand incentive. Plus, with Apollo, budget was secondary to the deadline.

      As they say: soon, good, cheap. Pick any TWO.
       

  • by m0s3m8n (1335861)
    And what if the rocket goes BOOM on the way up?
    • by robotkid (681905)

      And what if the rocket goes BOOM on the way up?

      As much as I want the JWST to succeed, I'm sure this precise concern will cause many sleepless nights for the space scientists and engineers involved. It's an excellent argument against mortgaging the future of an entire field on one, single, monolithic project.

      Fortunately, the JWST is going on an Arianne 5 provided by ESA, which has a 95% success rate (2 failures in 36 launches). As a bonus, if it blows up we can point fingers at the Europeans, always a popular pastime on this side of the pond.

      • by oni (41625)

        Fortunately, the JWST is going on an Arianne 5 provided by ESA, which has a 95% success rate (2 failures in 36 launches).

        That's interesting, because there were 2 failures in 135 launches of the space shuttle and people say it was completely unsafe.

    • Insurance .. these things are insured .. besides the experience building the telescope probably generated a lot of useful knowledge so all is not lost .. all is never lost in science.

  • I'm wondering how the Webb scope mirrors are protected from micrometeorites and space junk. They seem so exposed in the pictures. The Hubble mirror, in contrast, is burried deep inside a tube with a hinged cover. I'm sure the question has been considered and solved for the Webb telescope. Does anyone know what protects the mirrors?

    • by Hartree (191324)

      "Does anyone know what protects the mirrors?"

      It's not in earth orbit. It's roughtly a million miles from the earth, so space junk isn't really a factor.

      http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/orbit.html [nasa.gov]

      If you get something of any size hitting you out there, it's likely going so fast a shield wouldn't make much difference anyway. But, there isn't a big debris attracting mass like the earth out there either.

      • by bjs555 (889176)

        It's not in earth orbit. It's roughtly a million miles from the earth, so space junk isn't really a factor.

        Thanks. Interesting. L2 being a popular place, I suppose there will be an L2 junk problem at some point. Also, I think I get your point about a shield not doing much good. I guess any defects caused by meteors too small to destroy the mirror will only reduce its light gathering power slightly if there's even enough debris to make a collision likely.

  • by PineGreen (446635) on Saturday September 10, 2011 @11:41PM (#37365774) Homepage

    Hubble gave us a lot of very nice pictures, but let's be realistic: in terms of science per dollar we've got much more from combination of WMAP and SDSS I and II. JWST just killed a whole lot of more interesting projets in the same way LSST is now threathening to kill amazing and cheap projects like BigBOSS.

    They should still fly JWST, after all this money spend it would be stupid to kill it and interesting things will come out of it. But let's be fair about science: pretty pictures that excite public are useful for PR, but for real science you need better than that.

    • Hubble gave us a lot of very nice pictures, but let's be realistic: in terms of science per dollar we've got much more from combination of WMAP and SDSS I and II.

      Since neither the WMAP or the SDSS can replace the science performed by Hubble - you're comparing apples to sea anemones.

      But let's be fair about science: pretty pictures that excite public are useful for PR, but for real science you need better than that.

      You're operating under the mistaken notion that since what you see are 'pretty pictures

    • by syousef (465911)

      Hubble gave us a lot of very nice pictures, but let's be realistic: in terms of science per dollar we've got much more from combination of WMAP and SDSS I and II.

      How do you quantify science per dollar exactly? Are you even aware of the discoveries that are directly attributable to Hubble...like accelerating Universe?

  • Quoted from the movie... How did they get funding for all of this? You don't think a hammer costs 200 dollars and a toilet seat costs 500 dollars do you? That, and it was a GOVERNMENT operation...they pretty much think they have an unlimited budget, which is why the USA is in such debt. OVERSPENDING. Had this been a private venture, where stockholders (investors) were watching, it would have been built under budget, or it would never had been built, as it would have been deemed too expensive, for the ret
    • The teabagger propaganda really got to you, didn't it? Strangle any sane spending, so that more cash can be funneled to the Koch brothers and the military. One of these days, try to think for yourself. You might actually enjoy the experience.
    • Which part is the quote and which part is your words?

      I believe a quotation is supposed to be enclosed in quotation marks.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I work at Goddard Space Flight Center and have direct contact with other engineers working on JWST. I doubt that it will fly or, if it does, that it will be successful. There are too many "defective by design" problems with its systems.

    Consider, for example, the microshutters. In order to have a chance of resolving something like a planet orbiting a star, there is a design requirement to be able to block the optical path on a pixel by pixel basis. This is done in an LCD projector with an array of mirror

  • Eight billion for a telescope, and the Congress is willing to let a constitutional entity, the United States Postal Service, go bankrupt and disappear for lack of a few billion dollars to tide it over until the economy and the mail volume recover. I'm beginning to doubt the very structure of our government. Is it obsolete?
  • I'm sure there is no no doubt the increased cost is justified and accounted for. I can't blame NASA for any of it. But like many government entities there is an attitude (probably not shared at the top levels). There is a NASA facility not far from where I work and it has been winding down, probably due to the aforementioned budget lay-offs.

    In any case the word I hear in my lunchroom, the first thing a NASA employee learns: "Is to take a sh*t on company time." That is probably an indicator of why gover

  • I will build NASA a device that concentrates gravity at a fixed point. I have the tools and technology to build everything but only theory to build the gravity concentrator. They will have to "trust me" on that part of the project. Giving the O.K. for the project without having the technology to build the heat shield is just plain stupid.

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." -- William James

Working...