Who Should Pay for the Mistakes on NASA’s Next Big Telescope?
As the years passed and the scope of the mission swelled, so did the cost. By the start of this year, Webb had a price tag of $8.8 billion and a launch date of spring 2019. Most of the telescope—its gold-plated mirrors and scientific instruments—had been completed and tested. But there was trouble with the tennis-court-sized shield that’s supposed to protect it from the heat of the sun, and with the spacecraft that will house the observatory’s various systems. It was enough trouble that last month, NASA officials made a disappointing announcement: Webb would be delayed, again, this time to spring 2021. And it’s would be even more expensive.
Instead of $8.8 billion, the total lifetime cost of the telescope—which includes development, launch, and five years of operation—would come to $9.66 billion, officials said. The new total meant that Webb had breached a cap set by Congress in 2011, when lawmakers had begun to worry in earnest about the mission’s ballooning costs. Now if Webb wants to leave Earth, it needs Congress to approve an extra $800 million for the mission.
Webb is expected to get the money. Even the stingiest politicians recognize that you can’t cancel a mission that has already swallowed more than $8 billion in taxpayer dollars. But lawmakers aren’t thrilled, and some of them are wondering whether it shouldn’t be their constituents who pick up the tab. Maybe, they say, it should be the spacecraft manufacturer that has contributed to most of these delays: Northrop Grumman, a longtime NASA contractor.
“It is clear that Northrop Grumman did not adhere to the best business practices,” said Lamar Smith, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, at a hearing on Friday, addressing Northrop Grumman’s CEO, Wes Bush. “When government contractors make mistakes, typically no one is held accountable. The mistakes just happened, or were unavoidable, or won’t happen again. But in every case, the American people pick up the bill.”