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11/11/2010
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NASA Finds Space Telescope Plagued By Astronomical Costs

Space agency makes personnel changes to get the Hubble successor back on track.

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Costs to build the James Webb Space Telescope -- NASA's successor to Hubble – are mushrooming out of control, prompting the agency to make personnel changes to get the project back on track.

An independent comprehensive review panel found that it will take between $6.2 billion to $6.8 billion, rather than the estimated $5 billion, to complete the telescope, costs that will require the agency to add another $500 million to its budget over the next two years. The panel released its report Wednesday.

The panel blamed lack of cost control, not on the technical team building the telescope, but on project management and budgeting projections.

"The technical performance on the Project has been commendable and often excellent," according to the report. "However, the budget baseline accepted at the Confirmation Review did not reflect the most probable cost with adequate reserves in each year of project execution. This resulted in a project that was simply not executable within the budgeted resources."

Two budgeting missteps in 2008 at the project's confirmation review led NASA to erroneously project the telescope's final cost, according to the report.

First, NASA failed to base the budget on an estimate of projected costs that reflected threats to the project that existed at the time. Secondly, the agency didn't recognize the budget's inadequacies at the time, and even reserves added to the budget failed to present a complete budget picture, the panel found.

Budget woes aren't the only ones plaguing the project; the delivery of the telescope is also late. Earliest projections were to launch the telescope in 2007; NASA later pushed that back to 2014. The panel's report said it now expects the telescope won't make it to space sooner than September 2015.

The report's findings have spurred NASA administrator Charles Bolden to take action to prevent any further problems with the project.

"No one is more concerned about the situation we find ourselves in than I am," he said in a statement.

Bolden is assigning a new senior manager at NASA headquarters to oversee the telescope's completion, he said. The appointee will have help from a staff of technical and cost personnel from the science mission directorate to report directly to a NASA associate administrator.

Bolden also has reorganized the Goddard Space Flight Center's project office to report directly to the center director and is making personnel changes there to directly address problems found in the report. Goddard is the NASA center in charge of the project.

Making these organizational moves will ensure more direct oversight from NASA administrators as the project moves ahead, leaving less room for error, Bolden said.

"I am disappointed we have not maintained the level of cost control we strive to achieve -- something the American taxpayer deserves in all of our projects," he said.

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