Congress, NASA

NASA marks progress on JWST, but concerns remain

To hear it from NASA, development of its largest science mission, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), remains on track. Last week, the agency announced that the program passed another milestone: a spacecraft critical design review (CDR), the last of several CDRs for various aspects of the space observatory. “What that means is all of the designs are complete for the Webb and there are no major designs left to do,” said NASA spacecraft bus manager Richard Lynch in the statement. And, this coming Monday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden will visit the JWST facilities at NASA Goddard along with the telescope’s biggest Congressional patron, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to discuss the progress being made on the telescope.

So, is JWST really in good shape? A report released earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office offers a qualified “yes” that question. “The JWST project has maintained its cost and schedule commitments since its 2011 replan, has continued to make good technical progress, and has implemented and enhanced efforts to improve oversight,” concludes the report.

However, that GAO report identified a number of issues with JWST’s development. The program’s cost and schedule performance had declined in 2013: its Cost Performance Index, a measure of the value of the work done versus the cost, dipped below 1 for much of the first half of 2013 (the latest time such data were available), which the GAO report notes is “unfavorable” since “work is being performed less efficiently than planned.” The report specifically noted issues with JWST’s cryocooler that caused schedule delays and increased costs, as well as other items that could reduce the program’s cost reserves. The program had 14 months of schedule reserve when the report was prepared, although Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, noted at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society earlier this month that last October’s government shutdown caused a loss of about three weeks of that margin.

The GAO report also noted that NASA was not planning to update the joint cost and schedule confidence level analysis, or JCL, it performed in 2011 when it “replanned” JWST in response to schedule delays and cost overruns. The GAO recommended both to NASA and to Congress that the agency should perform another JCL analysis that is “based on a reliable schedule and current risks.

In a statement provided by the House Science Committee when the GAO issued its report, chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) praised the progress NASA made on the telescope but also echoed the concerns in the GAO report. “The GAO report shows that efforts made by NASA to tighten management show promise,” he said. “But recent cost and schedule performance has been declining since early 2013. NASA needs to better manage risks and control cost increases and schedule slips. Failure to reverse these recent negative trends jeopardizes not only JWST but also all of NASA’s science projects.”

24 comments to NASA marks progress on JWST, but concerns remain

  • Coastal Ron

    The JWST project has maintained its cost and schedule commitments since its 2011 replan, has continued to make good technical progress, and has implemented and enhanced efforts to improve oversight,” concludes the report.

    Recently we were debating the effectiveness of NASA Administrator Bolden. I’m no fan of his lack of support for affordable exploration architectures, but I think his one positive role has been to be a better manager than his predecessor was. And I think the ability of JWST to survive can be traced to his efforts to keep the program on track.

    That said, there is still a significant risk that fundamental issues that were set in stone prior to Bolden will push the program back out of budget bounds. Let’s hope not, since this is a serious amount of taxpayer money, and it would be a waste to have to cancel it.

    • James

      There was nothing about Boldens response to the JWST fiasco that wasn’t out of standard Administrators playbook. Yank it out of the Division so it an Agency priority and has more visibility – standard move for projects in trouble. Ensure Barbara Mukulski (lead author of Goddard Strategic Implementation Planning documents) gets behind it – another standard move.

      With respect to Space Science, I haven’t seen Bolden do anything that speaks of leadership. Now, in the HSF side of NASA, his embrace of commercial crew, and his desire for that, for that I’ll give him some leadership props.

      • Coastal Ron

        James said:

        There was nothing about Boldens response to the JWST fiasco that wasn’t out of standard Administrators playbook.

        Apparently doing what you say is standard management is something that eluded Michael Griffin, which was my point.

        That is why I give Bolden credit, because if anything his military career was an example of being a good manager. It’s one thing to say you know what you’re supposed to do, it’s another to do it. Bolden did it with JWST, Griffin didn’t.

        I would agree that Bolden is no visionary, and his support of unaffordable exploration architectures is disappointing. But since I don’t see the role of NASA Administrator as being a “visionary”, but more of a manager, I’m OK with his management skills.

        • James

          Agreed. Yes Griffin was a mess of a manager and leader. Your pro-typical tech smart person who rise up through the ranks because he’s technically bright, and politically savy/connected, but a horrible leader and manager.

        • Hiram

          I’m not sure that JWST was facing the hard decisions, in the Griffin era, as it was in the Bolden era. Bolden had pieces to pick up. So it’s not really fair to talk about what Griffin “didn’t” do on JWST. Griffin may have been a crappy manager, but it wasn’t on JWST. I believe at that time, JWST was still pushing the $3-4B bogey, which was pricey, but not totally unreasonable. There was no JWST “fiasco” confronting Griffin. In fact the fiscal s**t hit the fan right around when the Astronomy Decadal was concluding, which would have been in 2000-2001. During the Griffin era, JWST was clearly an SMD issue only, and Weiler would have been royally pissed if Griffin has tried to micromanage it.

          • Coastal Ron

            Hiram said:

            During the Griffin era, JWST was clearly an SMD issue only, and Weiler would have been royally pissed if Griffin has tried to micromanage it.

            When $Billions are involved, I’d say it’s the NASA Administrator’s job to be on top of things, whatever that takes. That’s their main job.

            Even if it’s a politically motivated dead-end program like the SLS, it must be managed properly. I think it’s ironic that the SLS has a better chance of surviving under a Bolden administration than the Ares did under Griffin…

            • Hiram

              “When $Billions are involved, I’d say it’s the NASA Administrator’s job to be on top of things, whatever that takes. That’s their main job.”

              Yes, but it is part of an administrator perogative to be on top of things by hiring DAs who they trust and who they listen to. Integrated over the lifetimes, there are LOTS of billion dollar programs at NASA. But yes, Griffin was woefully distracted by Constellation, and allowed JWST mission to go for confirmation review in July 2008 with incomplete costing. That happened perhaps not so much because of Griffin’s managerial incompetence, but because of cost control practices that were endemic in the agency. The independent analysis functionality had been rendered somewhat toothless long before Griffin took over.

              Now, let’s not forget that after confirmation, the project is committed to life cycle cost. But that didn’t happen on JWST. In fact, work after confirmation was routinely deferred to subsequent years, implicitly increasing the LCC. That was done because the Astrophysics Division capped the yearly budget for JWST. That deferment happened mostly on Bolden’s watch, not Griffin’s watch, though some of that deferment was inherited by Bolden.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “I think his [Bolden's] one positive role has been to be a better manager than his predecessor was.”

      I have a hard time using the term “manager” in the same sentence as “Administrator Bolden”. Time and again, he’s either failed to make a decision or act — as was the case with JWST, as I argue below. Or he’s made a decision or acted and then contradicted himself a short time later — as was the case with flagship missions — sometimes twice — as was the case with Orion’s cancellation then rebirth as ISS crew rescue vehicle and then re-rebirth as MPCV.

      That said, I’ll take Bolden’s lack of decision making and benign neglect over Griffin’s awful decision making and bullheaded determination to drive programs and the agency over the cliff. But being forced to pick between neglectful leadership and malignant leadership is a poor choice to begin with. The agency needs much better leadership at the top, regardless.

      “And I think the ability of JWST to survive can be traced to his efforts to keep the program on track.”

      I’m unaware of any actions that Bolden initiated to keep JWST on track. Congress (Mikulski) imposed the independent review on the project, not Bolden. And she did so in the summer of 2010, a full year after Bolden took office. All Bolden has done since is implement the review’s recommendations.

      If a manager waits for his board of directors to call for an independent review, then that manager is not managing. He’s just acting as a figurehead. Bolden (and Griffin) should have been delving into (or having someone delve deeply into) JWST and been shaking it up long before Congress had to intervene.

  • Hiram

    I’d rather not be an apologist for JWST, but the GAO has apparently decided that the project is pretty much on track. That being the case, it is nevertheless undeniable that JWST fiscal planning has been an embarrassment, and quite likely has left congressional credibility for large space astronomy projects in shreds. While the science that JWST does will be terrific, that credibility shredding, I’m afraid, will be one of its long lasting legacies. JWST advocates tell us that the observatory will make history. But I’ll tell ya. That history is already starting to be written, and at least right now it doesn’t look that good.

    • James

      Indeed. Right on the Spot. Boldens flip flop on the future of flag ships (1st he said for-get-about -it, then reversed himself) speaks to the fragile nature of future missions greater than $1B. JWST Legacy in action and it isn’t even launched yet!

      And if anyone is paying attention, its not too hard to get a single instrument mission at or near $1B in today’s poorly managed and led NASA.

      Lets see what happens when JWST wedge starts to open up in a few years and NASA pushes WFIRST/NRO Mirror/Dark Energy Planet Finding 2010 Decadal Flagship into the budget process.

      OMB and Congress’s response will be another tell to the lasting legacy of JWST.

      • Hiram

        “Boldens flip flop on the future of flag ships (1st he said for-get-about -it, then reversed himself) speaks to the fragile nature of future missions greater than $1B.”

        I think it was less a flip-flop, and more a lack of precise language. Bolden believes that flagships are increasingly unaffordable, and I think he wanted science planners to stop blithely presuming that they were routinely attainable. I think that’s what he meant when he said that we’ve got to stop thinking about them. What we have to do is stop thinking that they are routinely attainable, and having them displace a broad portfolio of smaller missions. He’s asking the science community to look at them differently.

        • James

          The one thing Flag Ship missions accomplish, is to get the science community around the mission to play like a community; everyone gets to hang their Christmas ornament on it, and all is well in science land.

          Now, get rid of flag ships , and we’ll have infighting (At least behind the scenes) among the disciplines within a science enterprise. Science communities will go out of business w/o flagships, because there isn’t enough money in Explorers, Discover, or New Frontier to sustain everyone’s pet discipline.

          Chicken, head, chopped, walking around, falling soon.

          • Vladislaw

            There is a lot of information out that a lot of mission’s price tag get extreme because every bell and whistle has to a new development. “Science” should, you would think, beable to start buying some off the shelf “science” equipment for space. If modular design was mandatory instead of each PI wanting the totally unique legacy mission, we might see some reductions. You are seeing it in the small sat industry, from NANO to Micro…

            • Coastal Ron

              Vladislaw said:

              If modular design was mandatory instead of each PI wanting the totally unique legacy mission, we might see some reductions.

              Not sure if we could have done that last century, but it sure looks like the technologies needed today have matured enough to start doing this now.

              I don’t know about the scientific merits of the Mars 2020 rover mission proposal, but the one thing I was happy about was that it will be derived from the Curiosity rover that is currently operating on Mars.

              But now you have me wondering Vladislaw – what does the reduction in cost to access space do in this regard?

              What if NASA bought a ride to Mars on a $135M Falcon Heavy and held a competition to find out how much science payload they could load on it for a fixed price? It’s launching on “X” date, and you’re either on it or you’re not!

              Falcon Heavy can deliver 21mt of payload to GTO, which is as much as a Delta IV Heavy can lift to LEO. That’s a lot of hardware – would lots of commodity hardware produce more scientific return than fewer custom hardware?

              • Vladislaw

                Ron, my thoughts return to a blog post on this site, must be 6-7 years ago. A PI had totally shot the budget and lost out on the mission. The engineer who worked on it listed everything the PI could have used off the shelf and easily made the budget, but refused on one item after another and wanted nothing off the shelf, even to the point of engineering the exact same component rather than just buying something that already had a flight history.

                What does a congress member talk to a PI and say you need more pork in my district if you want the mission?

                seems like chicken and the egg. Do you want the new high tech bells and whistles or do you simply want the data. Which comes first. because if it truely is data your after….

            • James

              Unfortunately when the science guys and gals are looking to their next mission, they typically want a 10 fold increase improvement in some scientific parameter; –and that usually involves a new technology development effort. Yes, its a derivative off of an existing instrument subsystem, but it’s new technology none the less. And usually pricey.

              Where science missions try not to re invent a wheel is in the spacecraft bus. If a previous science missions s/c bus will work, then the design team will draw from a previous bus’s subsystems as a baseline design.

              This works better if its an industry bus, vs. and in house JPL or GSFC bus – in those cases the Engineering directorate folks want to push their own technology further – as they have a charter to advance the state of the art.

              Having said that, the one in house project that figured out how to keep costs down was the original SMEX Project at Goddard. They used pretty much the same bus for the last of first 5 SMEX missions (SWAS, TRACE, and WIRE) and just tweaked the s/w. And all three stayed in their cost cap ($50M at the time) even giving back some money too. Those days are dead though with the advent of PI mode. Too bad. It seemed to address your point.

          • Hiram

            “The one thing Flag Ship missions accomplish, is to get the science community around the mission to play like a community; everyone gets to hang their Christmas ornament on it, and all is well in science land.”

            Not really true. There are large pieces of the astrophysics community (e.g high energy, infrared, UV, radio) that see no hooks on JWST to hang any of their ornaments. But yes, the purpose of a flagship is to bring the community together with at least a broad science perspective, if not a technology and wavelength specific perspective. One idea is that *eventually* new investments in different disciplines motivated by that broad science can enjoy the legacy of a flagship. A flagship brings attention to the greater science.

            “Science communities will go out of business w/o flagships, because there isn’t enough money in Explorers, Discover, or New Frontier to sustain everyone’s pet discipline.”

            No, the idea is that with level-of-effort budgets in science divisions, what you don’t spend on a flagship will flow into smaller missions. The number of people that are sustained is exactly the same, but smaller missions promote more diversity in the way that support is provided. In fact, as I said above, there are communities that are largely excluded from JWST. Those communities will go out of business exactly because a flagship is dramatically reducing opportunities on Explorers. Ultraviolet astronomy is in particularly hideous shape, because there are no ground-based opportunities.

            But that’s something that is worth some thought. What exactly does a flagship science mission bring to the greater community? It’s got to be more than several disciplines simply conceding influence, with the understanding that “I’ll get my turn eventually.”

            • James

              Explorers don’t have guest investigator programs and are very limited in the science questions they answer. And are not designed to break new ground scientifically. They can’t at $150 to $220 M a pop. They can’t afford to support a ‘community’. A University PI, yes, a few grad students, sure.

              Others may use R&A funding to write papers and follow up on some of the data collected, but it hasn’t been my observation that Explorers feed the huddle masses.

              Observatory class, multiple instrument class, missions, like a flag ship break new ground and unearths unknowns that the Explorer class mission can’t. Explorers can follow up on Flagship discoveries though; indeed, that is their best use.

              Of course COBE was an Explorer, and re wrote the books; so there are exceptions to the rule.

              • Hiram

                “They can’t afford to support a ‘community’.”

                No, but you don’t need a “community” to preserve a discipline. You need young people being trained in that discipline, Explorers do that in spades. Also, read what I said. The number of people being supported is the same. One flagship is worth LOTS of Explorers. You seem to be arguing that one Explorer isn’t worth one flagship. That’s a dumb argument. No one is saying that it is.

                “And are not designed to break new ground scientifically.”

                That’s just BS, and you proved it yourself, so I won’t belabor it. But by the way, COBE didn’t rewrite books as much as WMAP did. It’s fair to say that flagships can do what Explorers cannot, but it is not fair to say that, as a result, a flagship should replace lots of Explorers. The Decadals in several sciences were committal about that.

                It hasn’t been your observation that Explorers are feeding the huddled masses because flagship mission have been eating the funds that would do that.

  • James

    So how often does an Explorer fly? A new SMEX AO 1 time every three years? A larger Explorer once every 3 to 4 years? (The rate is slowing as missions cost more and budgets stay flat).

    So, HQ likes to flip flop between A Heliophysics mission, and an Astrophysics mission in tier selection process. So, perhaps, if lucky, each discipline gets two Explorers per decade.

    Now, the science theme may be ‘astrophysics’, or ‘heliophysics’, but the scientific focus speaks to only a few scientists of a particular discipline in that theme. And it’s the focus, not the theme, where young scientist spend their PhD years. So, how often will their expertise/focus actually fly as an Explorer?

    I”ll argue : not enough to warrant a stampede of young graduates into a Phd science focus curriculum that will collect data once every 20 years.

    Young graduates are looking at ExoPlanet science as the mission cadence for those missions is going to be greater in the years ahead.

    In today’s era Cobe would have been cancelled, as it was bumped from Shuttle to an ELV, and had half the work force as civil servants – not charging full cost

    • Hiram

      “So how often does an Explorer fly? A new SMEX AO 1 time every three years? A larger Explorer once every 3 to 4 years? (The rate is slowing as missions cost more and budgets stay flat).”

      The Explorer rate is slowing more as JWST sucks up money and less as costs are increasing. Everyone understands that. But yes, the Explorer program budget has been roughly flat for a decade in RY$, and dropping in proportion to the agency total. I should add that the infrequency of Explorer AOs has made international partnering especially difficult.

      With regard to stampeding young graduates, there is more to science and community development than shoveling dollars at them. What PI-class missions produce, as well as great science, is training in science management, science policy savvy, and general scientific entrepreneurship. That promotes scientific productivity. Research grants from flagships (read, Great Observatories, if you like) don’t really do that. That’s why the Explorer program was referred to as the “crown jewel” of NASA space science by the Decadal Survey report. The flagships may carry the flag, but they don’t carry the crown jewels!

      As to ExoPlanet science as a field that’s ripe for community development, it is interesting that particular community isn’t concentrating on a flagship mission any more (used to be SIM). How does it get away with that? Easy. It’s a field that can increasingly map itself onto many different missions. The Great Observatories were flagships that were more about wavelengths than specific science. ExoPlanets is different. I mean, geez, definitive and high priority exoplanet work is now destined for a #1 priority dark energy mission.

      • James

        Hiram,
        Also, to be clear, I am advocating both Flag Ships and Explorers. Both thrive in the presence of the other; indeed, many successful explorers are proposed using technologies that were developed under technology budgets for the flagship missions. And Flagships often are seeking answers to discoveries made by Explorers that go un-explored because the explorer mission can’t get their on its own.

        w/o Flagships, technology money disappear, leaving Explorer PI’s wondering how to advance technologies that could support their mission.

        If there is imbalance between the two, I think it ruins both programs.

        Regarding ‘training of PI’s’. For the PI who has a second chance at proposing and winning an Explorer, their first go round does provide a good training opportunity for their second go round. However, how often does that happen? And if it does, what is the time between missions? And most likely what NASA requires of the PI will undoubtedly grow in effort between their two wins, so how much does the training aspects really benefit the the average PI who may win once in their life time? I’d say not much as it is many times a baptism by fire. If they can translate that into future benefits for the community, then sure; does anyone track such instances though?

        And the winners are sometimes savvy already; indeed, I bet some PI’s have played the game of ‘call my congress person’ to alter the results of NASA HQ (not TMCO) decision on who goes forward.

        Again, I’m all for more of everything, and am disheartened to see the imbalance JWST has caused to both flagships and explorers.

        • Hiram

          “Both thrive in the presence of the other; indeed, many successful explorers are proposed using technologies that were developed under technology budgets for the flagship missions.”

          That makes sense. Very true that major technology pushes are targeted to flagship concepts.

          As to training of PIs, let’s just say the entrepreneureal spirit that PI-type missions encourage makes a scientist VASTLY more useful to science than those without any of that experience. I don’t care if requirements change slightly. A business entrepreneur who spends a decade building a successful business is by no means handicapped when it comes to building another a decade later. I should say that the suborbital rocket and balloon, and even aircraft programs also build that project and technology entrepreneurship. That particular expertise development was looked at with some care by the NRC Bohlin report (~2009). But putting in an HST proposal (or even for Explorer GI time), getting a data file back, and churning out a paper does not. It’ll be the same with non-instrument team JWST users. Just sayin’.

          As to “call my congress person”, um, you bet. That’s part of the game, and if you don’t know how to play the game, you lose. If you can’t convince Congress that your science is worth doing, it’s hard to imagine why federal dollars should be expended on it. The NASA science community has been attentive to congressional advocacy for only a decade or two. BTW, a non-NASA PI finds it a lot easier to do that advocacy than a civil service person.

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