Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Reinventing the Wheel

The Space Telescope Science Institute recently hosted astronomers to discuss projects in the pipeline for 2020 onward. Jon Morse, the director of NASA's astrophysics tried to keep the enthusiasm under control, "I would encourage folks to think about the future optimistically, but we do have to live within realistic funding levels."

Just as the space shuttle sucks up budget until its retirement from Constellation, the Hubble Space Telescope is sucking up budget from its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In turn, JWST is sucking up budget from other potential new starts. JWST alone now is expected to cost $4.5 billion by the time it completes its five-year mission in 2018. Of course, NASA will tell you that the reason other programs are having to wait on the drawing board is that the number has grown considerably since the program started. Or has it?

In fact, one only has to go back to the original estimates for JWST, and the numbers the NAR/ICE team considered when it independently reviewed the program at its start. Suffice to say, the NAR/ICE estimate is much closer to today's cost than the estimate ultimately used by NASA to kick the program off. You see, the problem isn't cost growth. No, the problem is budget planners putting their heads in the sand, ignoring the independent estimates, accepting the project's starry-eyed projections, having only to follow up years later with budget raids to fix cost overruns.

Getting back to Mr. Morse, he said that he doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past, so NASA is planning to undertake more rigorous cost estimating procedures for the next decadal survey. And NASA is also planning to foot the bill for independent assessments. Where have we heard that before?

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