Who Should Pay for the Mistakes on NASA’s Next Big Telescope?

Technicians lift the mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope using a crane at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Technicians lift the mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope using a crane at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. NASA/AP

The space agency has always coughed up the extra cash, but some politicians wonder if the contractor responsible for major errors should pitch in.

If everything had gone according to plan, the most powerful space telescope would be in orbit right now, perched about 1 million miles from Earth, peering deep into the universe, and returning home mesmerizing photos of glittering stars and galaxies.

Instead, it’s still in a factory in California, waiting to receive more money so engineers can finish building it.

The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next big astronomy mission, has been in the works for two decades. When the concept was first proposed in 1996 as the successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, scientists estimated it would cost $500 million and fly by 2007. But as scientists worked on the telescope’s design, the world around them began to change. Astronomers were making exhilarating discoveries about the cosmos, and engineers were inventing the technology needed to study them. Webb’s stewards believed the telescope could do more than originally envisioned, so they expanded its parameters.

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.”

Northrop Grumman is in charge of building and testing Webb’s sun shield and spacecraft elements. For a project as complex and pioneering as Webb, errors are to be expected. But the errors made under Northrop Grumman’s watch were avoidable, according to independent reviews. Workers used the wrong solvent to clean the observatory’s propulsion valves. A wiring error severely damaged the spacecraft’s pressure transducers. During an important test, the fasteners designed to hold the sun shield together came loose, scattering dozens of bolts that took months to find

These mistakes alone resulted in a schedule delay of about 1.5 years and $600 million. Northrop Grumman will spend the summer recovering from these errors, under increased oversight from NASA.

Northrop Grumman has a so-called cost-plus contract with NASA for Webb, which means the space agency assumes the risk of overruns. (Such contracts are the norm for large, unproven engineering projects, which are more likely to experience cost overruns. Fixed-cost contracts, in which the contractor assumes the risk, are less desirable for contractors.) Whenever Webb has needed more cash, NASA has coughed up the money, sometimes rerouting it from other missions inside the agency.

Bush said Northrop Grumman is willing to make any profit the company earns from Webb contingent on the successful deployment and operation of the telescope in 2021. But perhaps, Smith said, given Northrop Grumman’s performance, it’s time for the company to pitch in.

“Would you agree to pay the 800 above cap cost?” Smith asked Bush.

“We think that would be the wrong approach,” Bush replied.

Smith appeared exasperated. “I think that that would be justified, given the poor record and given the poor management,” he said. “I only wish that Northrop Grumman was going to take responsibility and show a little bit more good faith, both for the taxpayer and for the cost overruns, but it sounds like you’ve made up your mind. I just happen to disagree with you.”

When asked whether Northrop Grumman’s contract with NASA prohibits it from providing funds from its own coffers to the mission, a company spokesperson said, “I would refer you back to the responses in the hearing.”

It’s a tricky question, with little precedent. NASA has discontinued some projects because of contractor troubles in the past, but they were usually in the beginning stages, like the Radiation Budget Instrument, a large sensor that had been scheduled to launch in 2021 to study how Earth absorbs and reflects solar energy. NASA canceled the project in January, citing “significant technical issues and substantial cost growth over the past two years.”

Officials at the Government Accountability Office, an oversight agency that audits federal programs including NASA missions, criticized the contractor for the mission, the Florida-based Harris Corporation. They said Harris should be put on a proposed watch list of contractors that have exhibited poor performance and shouldn’t be allowed to compete for future NASA contracts.

At this week’s House hearing, lawmakers floated the idea of penalizing Northrop Grumman for its performance on Webb by restricting it from bidding for other projects at the space agency.

“We should be changing the policy so that this doesn’t happen like this again,” said Dana Rohrabacher, a congressman from California. “And perhaps a company that does not meet its goals or what it said it could do, perhaps we shouldn’t be giving them the next contract that comes down the line, whatever their bid is.”

For the most part, large-scale programs like space observatories have received extra cash when they have needed it. And their contractors, even those that made mistakes, made profits. In the 1980s, the contractors for the Hubble mission received millions of dollars in bonuses, even as the telescope launched over time, over budget, and with one glaring mistake: a defect in its primary mirror that blurred its field of view.

In 1990, NASA’s inspector general determined that if the space agency had “fully considered the cost overruns, the bonuses may have been reduced by as much as $1 million,” according to a Los Angeles Times story at the time. Three years later, the Justice Department threatened the company that built the flawed mirror with a lawsuit. It eventually agreed to pay the government $15 million.

If the worst happens with Webb, the federal government could threaten Northrop Grumman with the same.

But unlike Hubble, Webb was not designed to be reachable or repairable by astronauts. The space observatory will launch folded into itself and spend two weeks unfurling as it settles into its orbit around the sun. The complicated sequence, a delicate dance of hundreds of tiny maneuvers, is fully automated. The telescope can only sustain a handful of glitches in the process.

If the deployment fails, nothing can be done. Webb would become a $9.66-billion piece of space junk. And the debate of money would begin anew—this time about who should pay for the loss of the world’s most powerful space telescope.