JWST. Credit: Northrop Grumman

During an April 23 hearing that focused primarily on NASA’s strategic human spaceflight activities, House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to comment on reports of instrument delivery delays on the agency’s flagship astronomy observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope.

Mr. Bolden’s response: “That’s news to me.”

That was the wrong answer. Wrong not because it isn’t true — it’s perfectly plausible that Mr. Bolden had not been informed about any new issues with the program, perhaps because there are none, or at least none that might threaten its schedule. Indeed, Mr. Bolden’s response was one that is commonly used to indicate some measure of surprise at the question or statement that prompted it.

But therein lies the problem. Clearly the head of an agency with a $17 billion annual budget cannot be expected to keep close track of all of its programs, even flight projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But this is the James Webb Space Telescope, by far NASA’s biggest science development program, which has a history of massive cost overruns, lengthy delays and a price tag that at last check was a whopping $8.8 billion.

Congress, exasperated with NASA’s seeming inability to contain the cost growth, threatened to kill the project a couple of years back, despite industry warnings that thousands of jobs could be lost as a result. Lawmakers ultimately were persuaded to continue funding the program due to its scientific potential — Webb is the successor to NASA’s most successful science program ever, the Hubble Space Telescope — and by NASA promises to get things under control. To that end, NASA pulled the program out of its astronomy budget account and placed it under the management of a special program office at NASA headquarters, reporting directly to the agency’s associate administrator — No. 3 in the agency’s management hierarchy — and the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

In order to accommodate the observatory’s inflated cost within a budget expected to remain flat — at best — for the foreseeable future, NASA has put new large science missions on hold, including flagship-class planetary missions. Making matters worse is sequestration, which began taking a bite out of agency budgets in March. Even at the small end of the scale, NASA managers are feeling the squeeze: Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said recently that funding is so scarce these days that competitions for new explorer-class small missions are on hold so the agency can get started on a pair of recently selected projects in a similar size category.

Mr. Smith’s question about the status of the James Webb Space Telescope was prompted in part by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which flagged the observatory in an April 17 report that otherwise credited NASA with better management of its programs. The report specifically said two Webb instruments were 11 months behind schedule.

The instrument delays first came to light last year. A James Webb program manager said in January, however, that the program had sufficient margin in its latest budget and schedule to accommodate the instrument delays with no impact to either.

That’s reassuring. What’s less than reassuring is that the NASA administrator, who should be maintaining a laser-like focus on the James Webb Space Telescope, apparently was not prepared to give Mr. Smith a detailed account of the status of the development effort.

During a hearing of Senate appropriators the next day, Mr. Bolden seemed much better prepared, saying the program remains on schedule for a 2018 launch despite the instrument delays. Hopefully, he will make a point of always being ready to answer questions regarding the status of the crown jewel of NASA’s science mission portfolio. It is likely that he will continue to get plenty of opportunities to do so.