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.”