Some instances of government inefficiency are so spectacular that they clamor for our attention. Enter the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Twenty times over budget, 15 years behind schedule, and now delayed yet again, the JWST is an eye-catching example of how egregiously government agencies can waste taxpayers’ dollars. It also should remind Americans how risky it is to be overly cautious.
Astronomers recognized the need for a new space instrument to replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope back in 1995. At first, the project was estimated to cost only $500 million, but extensive revaluation pushed the completion date back and the price tag up. Today, the James Webb Space Telescope’s budget exceeds $10 billion, and the project has essentially eaten astronomy. Despite its bloated budget, NASA has failed to launch this replacement in the 20-plus years since President George H. W. Bush left office. Just this week, news came out that the JWST will remain on Earth until at least 2022.
Construction on the JWST began in 2007 and ended in 2016, a modest seven years behind schedule. Cost overruns were rampant, and the project required more funding virtually every year. In 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee found that the project was “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.” Frustrated by the cost increases, Congress finally capped JWST’s budget at $8 billion. NASA officials testified before Congress, assuring members that they were confident the JWST would launch in 2018.
Now, the more observant reader may realize that the JWST’s current budget of $10 billion exceeds the $8 billion limit Congress imposed, and that it is 2021, not 2018. So what went wrong, and how can we fix this process?
A consistent theme in the production of the JWST has been a reckless overabundance of caution. On the very first day of vibrations testing (which simulates launch conditions), for instance, the tests were canceled because “it was windy.” Later, a minor testing anomaly set the entire project’s timeline back two months. Scientific America called the testing on the JWST “stringent,” which appears to be a considerable understatement. The telescope was completed in 2016 but is still “going through its last stages of preparation.”
Even beyond the physical components of the telescope, scientists and engineers showed extreme deference to caution and safety. When members of Congress asked the manufacturer of the JWST, Northrop Grumman, for interviews and to conduct oversight over the project, they were denied. Grumman cited caution and concern for their junior employees.
Even now, some of the recent delays stem from worries that there may not be enough vaccinated workers at the launch site.
Being cautious and performing adequate testing is obviously necessary, but at a certain point, the cost of performing more tests outweighs the benefit. NASA understandably does not want to repeat the Challenger incident. But for the sake of taxpayers and of the scientific community, NASA needs to stop testing and re-testing every inch of the design and actually launch the telescope. It’s nice to see images of space from millions of years ago, but it shouldn’t take millions of years to collect them.