It should not have taken an independent panel to make NASA come to grips with runaway cost growth on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). But it wasn’t until Jet Propulsion Laboratory veteran John Casani and his team of reviewers — acting at the behest of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) — shined a light on the long-simmering problems dogging development of the flagship-class astronomy mission that NASA was forced to confront some tough choices ahead.
As chairman of the JWST Independent Comprehensive Review Panel, Casani warned last fall that the Hubble Space Telescope successor, whose official cost at the time was $4.5 billion, would need an additional $1.5 billion in the near term just to keep its launch from slipping much more than a year beyond its mid-2014 target date.
NASA, to its credit, quickly embraced some of the changes recommended in the report, installing new management for the program and moving it out of the Science Mission Directorate to give it more visibility.
But JWST has yet to receive the cash infusion called for in the Casani report, resulting in further slippage of its launch date and more cost growth. NASA now estimates that JWST will cost an eye-popping $8.7 billion when all is said and done and won’t be ready to launch until late 2018. To put that in perspective, the 2001 decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics that first endorsed JWST — then known simply as the Next Generation Space Telescope — put a $1 billion price tag on the mission as it assumed a 2010 launch.
There are no easy answers when it comes to what to do about Webb. But Casani deserves credit for forcing NASA and the broader space community to finally come to terms with the conundrum.