New report says WFIRST is “not executable”


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Another Webb! New NASA report has declared the agency’s next big telescope following the James Webb Space Telescope, dubbed the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is “not executable” and is significantly over budget.

“The risks to the primary mission of WFIRST are significant and therefore the mission is not executable without adjustments and/or additional resources,” the report states. It estimated the cost of the project at $3.9 billion to $4.2 billion, significantly above the project’s $3.6 billion budget.

Produced by an independent and external team to review the technical aspects of the program, its management, and costs, the report is critical of a series of key decisions made by NASA. The addition of a coronagraph and other design choices have made for a telescope that is “more complex than probably anticipated” and have substantially increased risks and costs, according to the report.

It also offered a scathing review of the relationship between NASA headquarters and the telescope’s program managers at Goddard Space Flight Center. “The NASA HQ-to-Program governance structure is dysfunctional and should be corrected for clarity in roles, accountability, and authority,” the report states.

Did you ever get a feeling of deja-vu? This is the same story that we saw with Hubble, and with Webb. It’s called a buy-in. The agency purposely sets the budget too low to begin with, gets it started, which then forces Congress to pay the big bucks when the budget inevitably goes out of control.

From my perspective I think this is the time to shut the project down. Since Hubble astronomers have apparently begun to take NASA’s cash cow for granted, and need to relearn the lesson that they don’t have a guarantee on the treasury. Once they get over the shock of losing WFIRST, they might then start proposing good space telescopes that are affordable and can be built relatively quickly, instead of these boondoggles that take forever and ten times the initial budget to build.

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7 comments

  • Chris Cresta

    This stinks, even with a surplus spy sat with a Hubble class mirror NASA still can’t get their act together.

  • pzatchok

    I thought boondoggle meant retirement in engineer speak.

  • Des

    The project team should be given a fixed budget and told to make the best telescope they can for the budget, with no increase possible.

  • wodun

    Its a mindset problem. Give them an SLS or FH and they will find someway so that those are not big enough for what they want to launch, just like you give them a free mirror and they find a way to muck it up.

    For a billion dollars, they could purchase a Cygnus to use as an airlock, a Dragon Crew, an addon coronagraph with different filters that can fit over the lens opening, and probably an MEV from Orbital ATK.

    All of those could be constructed in short order and even if it did cost more than a billion, it would certainly cost less than the $10 billion in overages we can expect.

    I guess to be completely cynical, giving them the option of in orbit assembly would mean they find even more creative ways to increase complexity.

  • LocalFluff

    By what value do you mark to market what WFIRST will create?

    Where is the calculation that proves that adding a coronagraph in order to multiply the science value of the telescope by determinating the composition of atmospheric exoplanets nearby? Is it really cheaper to do a completely new and separate coronagraph mission than to add it onto this one, regardless of what some budget was projecting a few years ago. Comparing old bad projections and accounting with new ditto doesn’t help. One has to start out with the value, the goal, which is moving, uncertain and potentially immeasurable.

    Could these unique instruments somehow have been made more cheaply? Well, ask the scarce crowd who is in the business! This is not off the shelf products.

    I doubt we’ll be disappointed about the JWST and complain about its costs, any more than we still are paying of the exorbitant(?) costs of Columbus ships.

  • Tom Billings

    Local said:

    “By what value do you mark to market what WFIRST will create?”

    By it’s value in continuing the spread of the human species into the Solar System and beyond. Note that this is far beyond the results of any single mission. It includes the way it reinforces the pathology in how NASA is forced to act by Congress.

    Goddard Spaceflight Center and it contractors have been the vassals of Senator Mikulski for 30 years. During that time it has been shaped by Mikulski into a funnel for money into the mouth of the University of Maryland, and other vassals of the Senator. Their total cost overruns are too large to calculate, …by design. She has left. It is time to begin to scour the pathology she and her predecessors and contemporaries induced in Goddard and NASA from its behavior patterns.

    GSFC is the primary example, far beyond what JPL does, of turning NASA’s budget into a pig trough for academia. The pattern of the last 45 years has been to favor large projects that are supposed to be “breakthroughs”, that take forever to get accomplished, supporting numerous academics in tweaking the last bit of performance out of never-before-tried systems. In GISS, Goddard Spaceflight Center has farmed this pattern into worse in climate science, where data is nearly guaranteed to be “adjusted”, all under Mikulski’s ever-so-benevolent patronage.

    WFIRST is simply the next example of this pattern, of feeding troughs for academics. If we are ever to see the money we spend focused on small increments of continual improvements, then we must call a halt to the battlestar galaxative projects that run on for decades. This, of course, will not be nearly so politically easy for Congress members, because they would have to purchase votes from other members in the economy of “favors” inside Congress far more often.

    The “Big Breakthrough” science mission is simply one more version of what Rand Simberg, at Transterrestrial Musings blog calls “Apollosis”. Make it so big that no one can object to it being cut once started. Describe any opposition to it as being the same as wanting to end NASA’s science exploration in astronomy, largely because, like Webb, it has eaten the money for all the other smaller projects. This must not continue if we are to ever make NASA something more than a political prop to the reigning Senators and Congressmen in NASA Center political districts.

  • Tom Billings

    Local said:

    “I doubt we’ll be disappointed about the JWST and complain about its costs, any more than we still are paying of the exorbitant(?) costs of Columbus ships.”

    We actually *should* object to the way the Columbus expedition’d funding set the tone for how the Americas were treated by Spain. The Habsburg Empire made it clear that similar subsidies to the Crown would be demanded of the “good friends of the Crown”, in return for rights to a monopoly of trade with the Spanish colonies there. This ignited the next 250 years of piracy and warfare from those who were excluded by the monopoly from that trade.

    That is what is under dispute here. The arrangements for how funding gets done have warped research projects to fit the needs of academia’s hierarchies, rather than changed academia to fit the needs of research. We may not get outright wars from it, but I note that the numbers of academics now suggesting the assassination of Trump has been growing steadily over the last 12 months, and is likely to continue. They feel *deeply* entitled to things as they have been.

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