Beta
×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

How the Webb Space Telescope Got So Expensive

timothy posted about 3 years ago | from the pity-we-can't-short-the-stock dept.

Government 133

First time accepted submitter IICV writes "Ethan Siegel of Starts with a Bang has done some research on how and why the James Webb Space Telescope's price tag ballooned. Quoting: 'Something wasn't adding up. How could the telescope be more than three-quarters complete after $3.5 billion, but require more than double that amount to finish it? Also, how did the launch date get bumped by three years, to 2018? And how did 6.5 billion become a disastrous $8.7 billion so quickly? So I did a little digging around, and perhaps a little investigative reporting as well, and got ahold of a Webb Project Scientist who's also a member of the Webb Science Working Group.'" Whether or not you buy the argument that the money's well-spent (at $5 billion or $8 billion, or either side of these), even the work in progress is beautiful.

cancel ×

133 comments

Sorry! There are no comments related to the filter you selected.

I know, I know... (4, Funny)

Frosty Piss (770223) | about 3 years ago | (#37364100)

How the Web space telescope became so expensive? Connectivity through Comcast, no doubt.

Hmmm. And First Post?

Re:I know, I know... (4, Funny)

flaming error (1041742) | about 3 years ago | (#37364126)

It's the same as software. The first 90% of the code takes 90% of the budget, the final 10% takes the other 90%.

Re:I know, I know... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364234)

And it's due to those pesky beancounters. You know that there are 3 types of people in this world? Those who can count, and those who can't.

Re:I know, I know... (5, Interesting)

hey! (33014) | about 3 years ago | (#37364580)

Wrong scenario. It's more like this one I actually was in where I was asked to estimate the cost of responding to an RFP and came up with 150K. Boss asked me whether it could be done for 100K, and I told him by cutting our profits to the bone and taking the narrowest possible interpretation of the RFP, it was possible, but the risk was unacceptably high. Two weeks later signed a contract to do it for 50K. When I asked him why, he said he could spread the cost by selling it to more customers. I told him that only diluted our focus on the project and that to productize it would cost us almost a quarter of a million.

The upshot is that we couldn't afford to undertake the project except with slack resources. By the time we were done we had functional software, but it cost us the equivalent of 200K (which we couldn't charge). It took us so long to finish that we never got even the 50K from the customer, because management had turned over twice in the meantime and had no idea what the project was about. Then the boss sold the "product" to a second customer (over my objections) for 50K and that cost us another 200K, and we never saw that money either.

Fiscal responsibility isn't just not spending money on things you don't need. It's also not committing yourself to projects you aren't willing to pay to do a proper job on. Spending less than what it would reasonably take to do a project is like flushing cash down the toilet.

Re:I know, I know... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37366194)

What the hell are you rambling on about? Your situation does not generalize, except in your own head.

It's a deal compared to other things. (5, Insightful)

Beelzebud (1361137) | about 3 years ago | (#37364144)

The whole project, with budget over-runs, is still cheaper than 1 month in Iraq...

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364188)

Depends ... since most of the costs for Iraq / Afghanistan / Yemen / Libya / whosenext were/are funded by supplemental appropriatons, they are not even in "the budget". The magic of "supplemental" funding...

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364282)

No, they weren't in the budget during the Bush years; during the Obama term they have been budgeted. Of course, that bit of honesty has helped the GOP scream about the huge deficit and claim Obama grew it more than he actually did. Just goes to show you what honesty gets you in politics, lol.

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364490)

The last time a President was honest with us, it was Jimmy Carter giving his "crisis of confidence" speech. Look where that got him.

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (3, Insightful)

haruchai (17472) | about 3 years ago | (#37364504)

Funny you should mentioned that - it showed up on my YouTube page yesterday - first time I'd seen it. Carter was and is a good man but he didn't understand what the US had become and still is - a nation that looks to a cheerleader in the top job rather than an honest father figure.
But, not to worry, that wish just might come true, so brace yourselves.

http://www.rickperry.org/join-today/ [rickperry.org]

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (2)

dbIII (701233) | about 3 years ago | (#37366042)

The irony is he was replaced with "never deal with terrorists" Reagan whose first act as President was to pay millions to terrorists for a ransom - and then sold them weapons a few years later! US politics has been well and truly fucked up and diverging from anything resembling reality ever since.

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37366058)

Brace yourselves? And what the hell do we have now? Exactly that -a cheerleader- good with the speeches, pep-talks, and generalities, but hollow and ineffective, having no substantial direct impact on the actual game.

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (1)

haruchai (17472) | about 3 years ago | (#37366174)

What you have now is a center-right compromiser who's a terrible negotiator and doesn't listen to his base. Rick Perry is much, much worse - he's a dumber, more self-assured George Bush and if the Teapublicans get control of the Senate and keep their hold on the House, then the US will quickly become a high-tech Haiti - albeit with an armed citizenry.

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (0)

jcr (53032) | about 3 years ago | (#37364662)

Getting stabbed isn't as bad as getting blown apart, but I'd still prefer not to be stabbed.

-jcr

Re:It's a deal compared to other things. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364690)

Hmm if you're going to die either way, I would say getting blown apart would be less painful and quicker than being stabbed, no?

it's a government project (0)

Spy Handler (822350) | about 3 years ago | (#37364148)

eom

Re:it's a government project (3, Interesting)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 3 years ago | (#37364426)

If you reward lying, you will get more lies. The original budget was intentionally low-balled (i.e. it was a lie), and now the truth is coming out. But no one will be fired, no one will be punished, there will be no negative consequences for the liars. There will also be no consequences for the people that accepted the lies. No incumbent will fail to be reelected over just a few billion in overruns. Expect more massive overruns on future projects. There is no reason to expect anything else.

Re:it's a government project (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 3 years ago | (#37364454)

Just like the F-22, F-35, B1, B2, any naval contract in the last two decades and on and on.

I think the last military contract that came in on budget was for a bunch of shower stalls during the Korean war.

Re:it's a government project (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365518)

I thought it was shower curtain rings.

And a portal gun, but that was a bonus.

Re:it's a government project (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364906)

If you reward lying, you will get more lies. The original budget was intentionally low-balled (i.e. it was a lie), and now the truth is coming out. But no one will be fired, no one will be punished, there will be no negative consequences for the liars. There will also be no consequences for the people that accepted the lies. No incumbent will fail to be reelected over just a few billion in overruns. Expect more massive overruns on future projects. There is no reason to expect anything else.

You're talking about Bush's wars, right? I forget, is slashdot left or right leaning?

Re:it's a government project (1)

Surt (22457) | about 3 years ago | (#37365192)

Since slashdot is a sufficiently large collection of people, it is obviously both.

Re:it's a government project (3, Insightful)

IICV (652597) | about 3 years ago | (#37365358)

The original budget was intentionally low-balled (i.e. it was a lie), and now the truth is coming out.

Since I submitted this story, I've actually RTFA'd and that's exactly what didn't happen.

Here's a timeline of events:

1. NASA says "we could make the JWST for $5.1 billion, and launch in 2014". Not "make and run for five years", the $5.1 billion only covers making the thing and putting it into space.
2. NASA's management fucks up, and an independent review panel finds that the actual price tag will be $6.5 billion, with a launch in 2015. This is NASA's fault.
3. However, the $6.5 billion number is contingent on NASA having $250 million to spend in 2011 and 2012 on important things like not laying off critical workers, and funding the fabrication of vital parts.
4. Congress does not provide that money, so the $6.5 billion number was never actually achievable anyway.
5. Now that NASA's fucked, climbing back out of the hole will cost an extra 1 - 1.5 billion dollars, because Congress didn't want to approve a total of 0.5 billion dollars over the next two years.
6. To add insult to injury, the number they're bandying about right now to show how much the project has gone over includes the cost of running it for five years, which the initial estimates did not. This adds nearly an extra billion on to the number.

At no point did NASA intentionally lowball the budget; if NASA's management hadn't fucked up, they could have made it. The initial cost overrun from $5.1 to $6.5 billion is NASA's fault, because NASA's been administrated by idiots for the last couple of decades.

Re:it's a government project (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365620)

Fundamental features of the story don't make sense.

How can an "independent review panel" even give a proposal -- much less an actual quote -- that a project be completed at a certain time for a certain amount of money? Only project management is in a position to do that. Only project management (i.e. NASA) can make this kind of request. It would be bizarre for an independent panel to say "give money X to group Y and they will deliver project Z," and expect that Congress will give the money, without group Y ever saying to Congress "yes, we can do that" or even asking for the money.

Furthermore, such reports to Congressional subcommittees are a matter of public record, so it should not be necessary to rely on anonymous sources for this part of the story.

Shipping and Handling (4, Funny)

perpenso (1613749) | about 3 years ago | (#37364160)

How the Webb Space Telescope Got So Expensive?

Obviously it was the shipping and handling charges.

Re:Shipping and Handling (0)

Smallpond (221300) | about 3 years ago | (#37364508)

That's it -- a space launch is ALL shipping and handling. No wonder NASA failed to keep the shuttle program going. They should have given it to someone who knows how to transport stuff inexpensively, the US Postal Service. While FedEx charges me $30.00 to send an envelope door-to-door across country, USPS does it for $0.44. The only large cost would be converting the shuttle fleet to right-hand drive. Then we'll have those costs down in no time.

PS - there's one diaper-wearing astronaut who would be perfect working for the postal system!

Corollary to Hofstader's law (3, Insightful)

shoppa (464619) | about 3 years ago | (#37364178)

1st Corollary to Hofstadter's Law: It always costs more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

Hofstadter's original law actually only applies to time (not money). Typical usage: A couple years ago the NYC MTA Canarsie line "next train" countdown signs, originally a two year project, were running a couple years behind, and projected to take 5 years to complete.

Re:Corollary to Hofstader's law (5, Insightful)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 3 years ago | (#37364466)

Another law from time immemorial:

A poorly planned project takes three times as long to complete as planned.

A carefully planned project only takes twice as long.

First Time Poster, Here (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364200)

What's with this 'first time accepted submitter' crap?

The person might very well have submitted under another username in the past.

True first-time submitters are great, but I'd hope the bulk of the stories are by people who've been around here a bit longer.

Really, this is slashdot, not some grade-school classroom where everyone is encouraged to do their best.

Inflation (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364236)

Real inflation not accurately reported with the current CPI is about 9% a year, so sounds about right.

Re:Inflation (2)

rlglende (70123) | about 3 years ago | (#37364272)

11+%, last time I looked at Shadowstats.

Yeah, I've seen this (5, Insightful)

RogerWilco (99615) | about 3 years ago | (#37364240)

You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up.

And then there is the whole complexity of getting it funded in the first place. And the smoke and mirrors that come with that. The most fun we had was getting funding for the hardware but not the software. The project is one year over schedule, the hardware is done, but the software...

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (3, Insightful)

bcrowell (177657) | about 3 years ago | (#37364506)

You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up.

It's an order of magnitude bigger than the Hubble, and they bid $0.8 billion initially, which is less than $2.5 billion the Hubble cost to build and launch. I wouldn't call that unforseen. It was simply massively underbid.

No kidding (2)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | about 3 years ago | (#37365476)

Some budget creep can be expected, particularly on R&D projects. However an order of magnitude? That means you were either incompetent, or lying. I've certainly had projects at work that cost more than initially projected. Things go wrong or there are unexpected other needs. However 10 times the price? Hell no. If something hit double the price I'd have to think it would indicate a large fuckup on my part (or a massive change in scope).

So one way or another, something went massively wrong. Either a complete lack of competency or a criminal level of lying.

Re:No kidding (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37366842)

So "order of magnitude" has been degraded to mean just a factor 10 these days ?

That's a bit sad, really.

Re:No kidding (1)

Pikoro (844299) | about 3 years ago | (#37367378)

I believe he is talking about the size and scope (capabilities, no pun intended) of the physical telescope, not the money for the project.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (3, Insightful)

Mr. Underbridge (666784) | about 3 years ago | (#37364534)

You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up

Which is why one hires good system engineers who have managed large projects before, and have a feel for how much to keep in reserve to deal with those things. Not to go totally Rumsfeldian, but there are known issues or unknowns, and you can generally budget for that. You want to make sure to understand the project well enough that you're not walking into things you don't even realize are problems.

This is why you can't just hand control of a project to a team of scientists without putting someone in charge who can understand the issues and budget for them. Otherwise you're handing over a blank check.

And I'm saying this as a scientist.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364660)

People gave him so much flack over that comment, but to anyone who's managed anything large, it was a perfectly valid and important statement. Not that he didn't deserve flack, but just not for that statement. It sounds like nonsense at first, but it is an important distinction. You can't possible include unknown unknowns in any estimate. They could literally be anything, and if you knew what they were, they'd be known unknowns.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (1)

Osgeld (1900440) | about 3 years ago | (#37364680)

hm I do it for my personal life, I dont know if my car is going to blow up the next time I drive it, and I have funds budgeted and set aside just for that reason. Its not magic, it used to be common sense

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (1)

Mr. Underbridge (666784) | about 3 years ago | (#37364694)

But you know that it could blow up. That would make it a 'known unknown' in the Rumsfeldian space. If it had never occurred to you that your car might need maintenance, and you hadn't set any money aside, that would be an 'unknown unknown' to you. That's the kind of thing you want to avoid.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (1)

Rockoon (1252108) | about 3 years ago | (#37364808)

Have you budgeted for the lawsuits for when your cars steering locks up and wipes out a group of children and the jury finds you responsible in spite of your protests to the contrary?

This sort of thing is an unknown unknown. You can't budget for every possibility.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (1)

tivoKlr (659818) | about 3 years ago | (#37364888)

That's called an umbrella policy.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (1)

Osgeld (1900440) | about 3 years ago | (#37364892)

I think someone needs to relax a little

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (1)

dbIII (701233) | about 3 years ago | (#37366062)

People give him flack over that comment becuase it's one of many shining examples of what a clown he is and yet another example of why people should be chosen on merit instead of some Feudalist system where the boss puts his drinking buddies in charge of important things. Rumsfeld probably did more damage to the military than any other factor in the last decade.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (1)

Surt (22457) | about 3 years ago | (#37365228)

I can assure you that there were layerS of project management professionals between the scientists and the budget that got delivered to congress. Obviously, that didn't help. Quite possibly it hurt, as there were people who were motivated to lowball estimates in order to secure funding, and then cross their fingers hoping that additional funding would come through once the project was deep into spending.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37366242)

A project management professional is not quite the same thing as a system engineer. A system engineer is supposed to focus on the engineering - how to make the end product functional, being able to make sound decisions on which functional subsystem requirements to compromise on and so on.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37366898)

"project management professionals". Now I understand what happened.

I love those guys. They supposedly lead projects, but they know nothing. And I mean nothing whatsoever. I once worked with these guys at a bank, on a project that they found out required someone who actually knew an encryption algorithm. They were implementing transaction processing with a secure black box. Turns out that actually meant that it wouldn't just accept plaintext commands. No-one had a clue, and so no-one had hired any programmer or sysadmin who knew how to call encryption libraries (you'd think programmers would be able to figure this out, right ? Especially highly paid ones at banks ... well you'd be wrong). With the box in test mode everything was still encrypted, but you knew the keys. No-one figured out how to properly encrypt the "hello" packet in about 3 weeks. So the black box had the slight issue of most expertly playing the part of a brick with a serial port.

Of course, they had one saving grace : they paid me $1000 a day, and kept paying this for over 6 months. Come to think of it, the project went over budget.

I have some leftover frustration, like the fact that they started out doing ECB. This is what's wrong with that [wikipedia.org] . Then we switched to CBC, and I found out their chosen standard said to use a NULL initialization vector, and had a static packet header, which was larger than the first packet. Morons. And of course, it was too late to change anything (besides, getting permission to change the encryption standard required senior management approval. Which was great, because they weren't in the same country as the developers. Took 4 months for a trivial change, one of which spent in a 5 star hotel on an island in the Atlantic ocean. And I was actually making more than the room cost, most days for walking in the office to hear "no" to my question of "have you read it yet ?". I did manage to get it approved. Needless to say, I wasn't about to get permission from the "project management professionals" to do it twice.

Oh well, next year they'll have to switch to AES, and I'm getting my house renovated. You'd think that after such a project they'd make damn sure they hire a few capable developers who've actually worked with encryption, right ? I'm hoping (and thinking) that will be a "no".

Comcast Fired Me For This (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365894)

I was working on a project using a relatively new technology that barely anyone in the company hadn't used before. They pulled a due date out of their ass and I blew past the date. I'm skipping over a lot of details, but let's just say Comcast handed me my head.

They tend to do that when things go wrong technically. Nice lovely employer that they are.

Re:Yeah, I've seen this (0)

khallow (566160) | about 3 years ago | (#37365966)

You're doing something nobody has done before, inventing it as you go, and people expect you to know in advance how much it's going to cost. There are always unforeseen things that crop up.

There are three things to note here. First, the various technologies of the James Webb Space Telescope have been done before. We've had space telescopes before. We've put things in Lagrange orbits before. Same goes for cryogenic cooling and large, wide objects. The various features of this instrument have been done at some scale in space. It's not a true "nobody has done before" thing.

Second, the instrument was made by people who should be very good at giving cost estimates for things like this. Grab a person off the street and you'd be lucky to get a cost estimate within two orders of magnitude. But a professional team submitting a serious bid should be able to get within a factor of two of the actual price.

Third, there are various dynamics at play to both low ball the initial bid and pump up the subsequent costs. The lowest bid which meets a sufficient credibility level gets the contract. The profit for these projects is all in the development and construction. And the penalty for tardiness isn't significant. Many of these businesses have numerous poorly run projects under their belts yet they still get contracts for more. In consequence, it doesn't matter that much to the bottom line, development and construction funding is far more relevant to the bottom line than whether or not the project actually works!

Synopsis (5, Informative)

Lexx Greatrex (1160847) | about 3 years ago | (#37364270)

Thank you for a very nice piece of investigative journalism. I summarize my understanding of it as follows:

The JWST budget did not include provision for technical and other problems that are expected to happen on large speculative projects such as this.
Oversight failed to act on warnings that budgets were being exceeded and schedules were drifting.
When oversight finally pulled the plug, parts of the project were near completion (implying that a 2014 launch date may have been possible).
Attempts to salvage any of the billions invested will incur significant additional costs due to loss of staff and the dissipation of knowledge, pushing any possible launch date close to 2020 and a budget four times the size of the original estimate.
Congress is shifting the blame entirely to NASA; seemingly avoiding responsibility for its part in appropriating public money without either due diligence or proper oversight.

Sound like business as usual.

Re:Synopsis (5, Informative)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | about 3 years ago | (#37364324)

That is by and large a fair summary but there's an important part of TFA that also comes up: A large part of the added cost could have been avoided if Congress had just given an additional 250 million for a launch date in 2015. If that had occurred this would be only a few hundred million dollars over budget.

Re:Synopsis (-1, Troll)

Em Adespoton (792954) | about 3 years ago | (#37364390)

I wish *I* could come in a few hundred million dollars over budget and have people think that's a good thing....

Interesting to think that not only did this project have a budget the size of a small nation, it actually was projected to exceed its budget by the GDP of another small nation.

And despite this, Congress didn't have an active oversight committee watching this thing???? The project was a small dictator-led country in it's own right, with debt, deficit, and the works!

Re:Synopsis (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365014)

If you delivered an entirely new scientific instrument and only went over budget by 4%, I'd call you a fucking hero.

Based on your comment, I'm going with dipshit.

Re:Synopsis (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365346)

"budget of a small nation" is not really a good unit of measurement.

Re:Synopsis (1, Insightful)

Raenex (947668) | about 3 years ago | (#37365338)

A large part of the added cost could have been avoided if Congress had just given an additional 250 million for a launch date in 2015.

I find it hard to believe that a lack of $250 million ballooned into several billions of dollars. The article cites a supposedly independent review, but doesn't go into any detail about the math. It just sounds like activist propaganda. Sorry, I like science too, but let's be honest.

Re:Synopsis (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37366684)

A lot of that cost is the fact that they laid off a large part of the team working on it. It would cost billions to rehire, retrain, and restart plus the lost time. You did read the article, right?

Re:Synopsis (1)

Raenex (947668) | about 3 years ago | (#37367148)

It says: "The reason for the huge, $1-1.5 billion and three year differences is because NASA has had to lay off workers and stop work on many components due to a lack of funds. "

So taking the article at face value, that's at most $1.5 billion in cost overrun.

The article is deceitful when it says, "what was originally slated to be a $5.1 Billion project, to launch in 2013"

No, it was originally expected to cost $500 million and to launch in 2007. The numbers have been steadily ballooning upwards ever since.

Re:Synopsis (1)

roc97007 (608802) | about 3 years ago | (#37364332)

In other words, business as usual...

No surprise (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364310)

When has a large government project been under budget or ahead of schedule?

F35
FBI's Sentinel project
FAA's En Route Automation Modernization

Re:No surprise (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 3 years ago | (#37366816)

See the previous Slashdot story. GRAIL is an example of a program that should be rewarded while JWST is an example of program that should be cancelled. But in the bazarro world of NASA, programs that come in under budget on development get cut in operations to pay for the programs that are struggling in development. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

Indicative of poor US economy (2, Insightful)

arcite (661011) | about 3 years ago | (#37364318)

The dollar is being systematically debased.

Re:Indicative of poor US economy (1)

flaming error (1041742) | about 3 years ago | (#37364628)

Technically, the dollar is baseless.

Re:Indicative of poor US economy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365370)

How did you draw such a far-reaching conclusion about a multi-trillion dollar economy from a few billion dollars on a science project?

Re:Indicative of poor US economy (1)

flaming error (1041742) | about 3 years ago | (#37365554)

Google "dollar value chart" and you'll see that this was a well-established fact long before this article was written. The dollar has been approaching zero for a long time.

Re:Indicative of poor US economy (1)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | about 3 years ago | (#37366068)

The dollar value against some arbitrary goods is a worthless measure. What counts is the individual purchasing power - which has been rising for a long time, until the systematic destruction of the middle class began.

Re:Indicative of poor US economy (1)

moderatorrater (1095745) | about 3 years ago | (#37365898)

Exactly. They should add space telescopes to the price index so that we have a clearer understand of inflation. Bastards in Washington are screwing us by not including this shit.

Re:Indicative of poor US economy (1)

stephanruby (542433) | about 3 years ago | (#37365930)

I don't understand your comment. If the dollar is being devalued, then shouldn't the project end up becoming cheaper for us?

Re:Indicative of poor US economy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37367042)

No. Inflation means that things cost MORE, not less. Be there in the last days of a currency and you'll see the value of money become a fraction of what it was each day before, and the price of goods (particularly scarce ones like food) skyrocket (no pun intended) as a direct result.

Particularly in this case, they still have to build the item in question, since it's a one-off item. That requires parts, labor, and consumables, all of which are becoming more expensive, not due to well-intended space researchers, but due to lying, greedy, corrupt corporations and politicians, and, ultimately, due to capitalism, which is well overdue for retirement.

Similar to our aircraft carriers. (1)

Pino Grigio (2232472) | about 3 years ago | (#37364434)

These things seem inexplicable to me. Surely people are capable of factoring inflation into their calculations? Here in the UK, we signed off for two aircraft carriers (Queen Elizabeth class) for £3.1bn. Now we're laying down two, will only have enough aircraft to put one in service, and the total cost has ballooned to nearer £6bn. Why? I'm guessing the people who commission these things are being screwed by the contractors, or are really genuinely incompetent.

Re:Similar to our aircraft carriers. (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 3 years ago | (#37364500)

It rather seems that your military procurement folks are worse off than hours. Which is a truly scary concept.

The Register (I know, not the most neutral or sane of journalism outlets, but still) has run a series of articles on the Nimrod sub hunter [theregister.co.uk] . This was a 1940's era jet refitted as a submarine hunter (ala the Lockeed P3) but at a cost that rivaled the shuttle or a B2.

Truly outstanding.

But you do draw an unnecessary inference - the British military procurement office can be incompetent AND the contractors greedy little felons. Welcome to 'civilization'.

Re:Similar to our aircraft carriers. (1)

Chris Mattern (191822) | about 3 years ago | (#37364724)

Welcome to 'civilization'.

In your case, wouldn't that be 'civilisation'?

Nobody has an incentive to finish it (5, Interesting)

petes_PoV (912422) | about 3 years ago | (#37364486)

There are two commpeting forces at play here. Three if you include the people responsible for the budget.

The first and most obvious group is the scientists who first proposed the telescope and want to use it.

The second group are the people contracted to build it. These are the ones with all the power and the most to lose. Once the JWST is finished and launched they are (mostly) out of as job. As a consequence they have a selfish interest in making the design,development, testing and integration take as long as possible - simply to preserve their jobs and income. Now that's a fairly extreme description. I'm (almost) sure that nobody actually goes out of their way to sabotage it, or malinger. It's just that as with any project, there's always the possibility to improve things: tweak the spec. here, add another 0.05dB to a noise margin there ... and so it goes on; With no hard and fast deadline in the offing, there's nobody to say "it's absolutely got to be finished by <date>". Military projects in peacetime suffer exactly the same project creep and delays, for exactly the same reason.

The deadline is the key - that's why the moon landings happened on time. That's why wartime projects (when people are dying for lack of a solution) turbo-charge innovation. The JFDI attitude is paramount and without a launch date to work towards (or at least without a credible one, that absolutely MUST be met) the contractors are always going to be suggesting improvements, not overcoming delays and problems and finding more expensive options for problems.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (1)

Baloroth (2370816) | about 3 years ago | (#37364530)

I think it also has to do with deliberate underestimation of costs and time. If 2 contractors bid on a project, and one gives a $3.5 billion 3 year estimate, while the other gives, say, a $5 billion and 4 year estimate, government managers will go for the first. After 3 years, the first contractor (who bid low) can of course not finish with just $3.5 billion, so he asks for more money and time, which the government is forced to pay unless they want to have wasted money. Had they gone with the realistic contractor in the first place, it could have been made on time and on budget... but then they would have been asked why they spent more when they could have gone with a cheaper contractor. The entire government system rewards this behavior, since most of the people who actually make these kinds of decisions aren't elected and have little to no liability for their bad decisions. And those who are elected, just blame it on the contractors... then do the same thing (sometimes with the same contractor) next time.

The whole point is to maintain an appearance of frugality, without actually doing anything to cut costs (and in most cases increasing them). Without any personal liability, government employees feel no pressure to change. In the private sector, businesses who do this often go out of business (well, unless they receive a nice bailout check), so you don't see it quite as often, but in larger businesses it still happens quite a lot because there aren't any consequences for their actions.

As you said, in wartime this doesn't happen nearly as often, for a whole slew of reasons, not least of which is that when they do, they tend to loose the war.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364586)

perhaps bids should be adjusted based on the contractors previous track record... so if they had a %50 over run on their last project their $3.5B bid would be evaluated as though they had bid $5.25B. If this was mandatory it would make explaining the ration choice much easier.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (1)

Osgeld (1900440) | about 3 years ago | (#37364702)

ya know, its the freaking government, one of those overpaid clowns should notice you can sue in situations like that

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365402)

Go out of business? Really?

No, they absolutely don't. The CEO takes a golden parachute and stuff gets reorganized. Then the CEO goes to work somewhere else.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364686)

As a consequence they have a selfish interest in making the design,development, testing and integration take as long as possible - simply to preserve their jobs and income

Contractors don't get payed on milestone delivery?

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (2)

EnsilZah (575600) | about 3 years ago | (#37365218)

I have no understanding of the big contractor working on a government project world, so maybe someone could explain to me why when a contractor bids for a project like this and doesn't meet the budget or deadline they don't just have to eat their losses and get fined for not completing on time.

I know there is no real comparison, but I'm working on a video project for someone that's taking up more of my time than I anticipated and is generally not really worth the effort but once we've decided on a price it's my obligation to complete it, and we haven't even signed a contract.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365468)

Often enough the contract comes with the requirements that are to be met, but funny enough the requirements are never quite right the first time. Every time the client comes back to change the contract gives the contractor another opportunity to raise the rate. Contractors can intentionally lowball bids because they know it will be renegotiated umpteen times.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (4, Interesting)

O('_')O_Bush (1162487) | about 3 years ago | (#37365796)

Well, the policy described has changed a lot in recent years. I work for a large defense contractor (not going to throw names), and while I don't work in contract procurement, I do have an understanding of how things have been changing.

At one time, it was common practice to underbid by a lot, then charge a lot to get stuff done right because the gov't contract selection process was abusive, and so contractors had to abuse the system back to level the playing field and turn a profit.

The gov't then started putting a stop to this by forcing contractors to deliver on the original budgets, or otherwise risk lose contracts in the future. Contractors responded to this by abusing employees and benefits to pick up the difference (for example, at one time it was an unspoken rule or so that one had to work up to the overtime kick-in of 46 hours per week (6 hours/week of free work), or otherwise be first on the chopping block when budget cuts came out). However, the gov't saw what was going on (contracts across the board weren't increasing in price as expected) and put a stop to that as well (forcing all hours to be billed to the gov't, regardless of whether the company pays for it in overtime).

Now contracts are more expensive, and budgets are more tightly and carefully managed, teams are run leaner (that is, fewer people have jobs), but fewer contracts are going way over budget at the same time. At the same time, any scope creep is now added to the project's budget, instead of being absorbed and then rebounded as a cost overrun.

It really has been quite a paradigm shift in the past 3 years or so.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365656)

Mars missions have hard deadlines determined by celestial mechanics. But still stuff happens and overruns occur or gods forbid a two year slip to the next launch opportunity, which might be worse

Part of the problem though is that lower levels put in the margin in budget and schedule, but it gets rolled up and "held at the higher level"

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (1)

dbIII (701233) | about 3 years ago | (#37366084)

That's why wartime projects (when people are dying for lack of a solution) turbo-charge innovation

The "Liberty ships" were a very well documented example of it instead being an excuse to take what was well known at the time as dangerous shortcuts while profiting as if the shortcuts were never taken at the expense of taxpayers, purchases of war bonds and ultimately the lives of sailors. Never underestimate the greed, stupidity and disinterest of unsupervised private management that suddenly has their snouts in the public trough.
If you want a more recent example there's billions that went missing that should have provided some sort of benefit in Iraq and Afganistan. Wartime doesn't drive these things. Adult supervision during wartime or other times drives these things.

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about 3 years ago | (#37366276)

The deadline is the key - that's why the moon landings happened on time.

Also the fact that the Soviets were getting close to a launch (or at least made it appear that way). The enemy breathing down your back is grand incentive. Plus, with Apollo, budget was secondary to the deadline.

As they say: soon, good, cheap. Pick any TWO.
 

Re:Nobody has an incentive to finish it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37367086)

"Nobody has an incentive to finish it"

How's that different with the JWST compared the many other of NASA's space vehicle projects, and how does it explain why those other projects did in fact get finished?

Reading TFA i come away with the impression that the actual cause of budget over-run is a little more complicated than just "no hard deadline".

Fucking Astrophysicists. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37364682)

Spend billions on telescopes, and what do you get? Pictures of stars. Spend billions of particle physics and what do you get? Traces of particles. Spend a hell of a lot less than that on solid-state physics and what do you get? Superconductors, semiconductors, and nanotechnology.

Re:Fucking Astrophysicists. (2)

Hartree (191324) | about 3 years ago | (#37365082)

John P. (my first grad school adviser) is that you?

Sure sounds like him.

He was ecstatic when the SSC was cancelled in the 90s. I don't think he really let himself understand that none of the money would go to things he wanted funded.

The fallacy that if the money wasn't spent on JWST it would get spent on something more worthwhile is just that. A fallacy.

And before you get too bent out of shape at some astro type tossing cold water one you, my background is solid state too. (Curse you Murray Gell Mann and your Squalid State comments. :)

Boom (1)

m0s3m8n (1335861) | about 3 years ago | (#37364728)

And what if the rocket goes BOOM on the way up?

Re:Boom (1)

robotkid (681905) | about 3 years ago | (#37364898)

And what if the rocket goes BOOM on the way up?

As much as I want the JWST to succeed, I'm sure this precise concern will cause many sleepless nights for the space scientists and engineers involved. It's an excellent argument against mortgaging the future of an entire field on one, single, monolithic project.

Fortunately, the JWST is going on an Arianne 5 provided by ESA, which has a 95% success rate (2 failures in 36 launches). As a bonus, if it blows up we can point fingers at the Europeans, always a popular pastime on this side of the pond.

Re:Boom (2)

backslashdot (95548) | about 3 years ago | (#37365738)

Insurance .. these things are insured .. besides the experience building the telescope probably generated a lot of useful knowledge so all is not lost .. all is never lost in science.

Mirror question (1)

bjs555 (889176) | about 3 years ago | (#37364978)

I'm wondering how the Webb scope mirrors are protected from micrometeorites and space junk. They seem so exposed in the pictures. The Hubble mirror, in contrast, is burried deep inside a tube with a hinged cover. I'm sure the question has been considered and solved for the Webb telescope. Does anyone know what protects the mirrors?

Re:Mirror question (2)

Hartree (191324) | about 3 years ago | (#37365040)

"Does anyone know what protects the mirrors?"

It's not in earth orbit. It's roughtly a million miles from the earth, so space junk isn't really a factor.

http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/orbit.html [nasa.gov]

If you get something of any size hitting you out there, it's likely going so fast a shield wouldn't make much difference anyway. But, there isn't a big debris attracting mass like the earth out there either.

Re:Mirror question (1)

bjs555 (889176) | about 3 years ago | (#37365266)

It's not in earth orbit. It's roughtly a million miles from the earth, so space junk isn't really a factor.

Thanks. Interesting. L2 being a popular place, I suppose there will be an L2 junk problem at some point. Also, I think I get your point about a shield not doing much good. I guess any defects caused by meteors too small to destroy the mirror will only reduce its light gathering power slightly if there's even enough debris to make a collision likely.

Re:Mirror question (1)

kayumi (763841) | about 3 years ago | (#37365118)

deflector shields

"even the work in progress is beautiful." (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37365108)

stfu you moron
you sound like a lil bitch

Hubble wasn't that amazing (2)

PineGreen (446635) | about 3 years ago | (#37365774)

Hubble gave us a lot of very nice pictures, but let's be realistic: in terms of science per dollar we've got much more from combination of WMAP and SDSS I and II. JWST just killed a whole lot of more interesting projets in the same way LSST is now threathening to kill amazing and cheap projects like BigBOSS.

They should still fly JWST, after all this money spend it would be stupid to kill it and interesting things will come out of it. But let's be fair about science: pretty pictures that excite public are useful for PR, but for real science you need better than that.

Re:Hubble wasn't that amazing (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37367066)

"Hubble gave us a lot of very nice pictures, but let's be realistic: in terms of science per dollar we've got much more from combination of WMAP and SDSS I and II.... ...let's be fair about science: pretty pictures that excite public are useful for PR, but for real science you need better than that."

Interesting how you go from "less science per dollar" to "no real science" re the HST. Sounds rather hyperbolic.

To be fair, i think you are not an astronomer. You'll be hard pressed to find astronomers who think the HST produced "no real science" or even that it was not worth the cost (about $5 Billion over 20 years).

Movie Independence Day (1)

p51d007 (656414) | about 3 years ago | (#37366066)

Quoted from the movie... How did they get funding for all of this? You don't think a hammer costs 200 dollars and a toilet seat costs 500 dollars do you? That, and it was a GOVERNMENT operation...they pretty much think they have an unlimited budget, which is why the USA is in such debt. OVERSPENDING. Had this been a private venture, where stockholders (investors) were watching, it would have been built under budget, or it would never had been built, as it would have been deemed too expensive, for the return on the investment. Until you get the lobbyist, and the CAREER politicians out of DC, forget about every cleaning up this mess.

Re:Movie Independence Day (0)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | about 3 years ago | (#37366110)

The teabagger propaganda really got to you, didn't it? Strangle any sane spending, so that more cash can be funneled to the Koch brothers and the military. One of these days, try to think for yourself. You might actually enjoy the experience.

Re:Movie Independence Day (1)

Osgeld (1900440) | about 3 years ago | (#37366188)

if private investors were watching they would have sold us out to fucking china on day one just like every other industry in the country. Then a decade later we start to notice were not even having to hand them the blueprints anymore and they just cut us out of the loop while we are left there wondering why.

A Monetary Black Hole (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37367140)

I work at Goddard Space Flight Center and have direct contact with other engineers working on JWST. I doubt that it will fly or, if it does, that it will be successful. There are too many "defective by design" problems with its systems.

Consider, for example, the microshutters. In order to have a chance of resolving something like a planet orbiting a star, there is a design requirement to be able to block the optical path on a pixel by pixel basis. This is done in an LCD projector with an array of mirrors, each of which can be individually pivoted to deflect a small portion of the beam. Someone determined that this method would not provide adequate contrast ratio so a shutter system was proposed. The problem with shutters is that the individual elements must pivot farther. A mirror has only to move the beam off target; a shutter must open wide. Since the shutters are MEMS devices, the wide bending requires the use of very fragile material--stuff that breaks when subjected to shock and vibration testing at levels well below mission requirements. (Imagine the shock when the pryo charges go off and the mirrors start unfolding into place.) The project management solution thus far appears to be stop testing and ship the microshutter assembly on to the next level of integration. When it breaks there, it will be a handling issue and "not our problem."

This isn't the only problem subsystem.

JWST is the 800 lb gorilla at Goddard. The program routinely takes resources and personnel assigned to other projects. The suggestion that Congress might kill it was a real morale booster. We could fly about a dozen Explorer class mission for what would be saved by ending JWST at this point. The first such missions would provide real, useful science sooner than JWST, and the later missions could be designed based on the knowledge derived from the earlier.

JWST would be wonderful if it could work, but as the program has been and is being run, it will simply produce a big piece of space junk out at L2. And L2 is a place where we do not have the ability to send a servicing mission. It's time to stop throwing good money after bad!

Load More Comments
Slashdot Login

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?

Submission Text Formatting Tips

We support a small subset of HTML, namely these tags:

  • b
  • i
  • p
  • br
  • a
  • ol
  • ul
  • li
  • dl
  • dt
  • dd
  • em
  • strong
  • tt
  • blockquote
  • div
  • quote
  • ecode

"ecode" can be used for code snippets, for example:

<ecode>    while(1) { do_something(); } </ecode>