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NASA Contractor Grilled Over Billions in Cost Overages

How did the budget for the James Webb telescope balloon from $500 million to $9.6 billion?

Both members of NASA and executives from the manufacturer Northrop Grumman faced an inquisition from Congress last week as lawmakers pursued an explanation as to why a NASA telescope project was so far over budget and so far behind.

I mean… how bad can it be?

Well, the James Webb Space Telescope – the planned successor to the famous Hubbell – had an original launch date in 2007, with a budget of $500 million. The Webb’s target launch year is now 2021 … and its budget? $9.6 billion.

Now to be fair, it sounds a little worse than it is. Part of the massive delays and cost overruns are due to expansions of the project, and NASA has admitted to making quite a few adjustments to the scope along the way. Gizmodo also reported in June what it refers to as the “over-optimism” in the original timeline, especially considering some the technology and applications relating to the Webb are unprecedented.

But some are placing the Lion’s share of the responsibility on Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer in charge of the telescope project. The company is being accused of not insignificant “human error” including a lack of early, individual safety checks that resulted in problems not being discovered until later in the process. Northrop Grumman is also being blamed for a delay caused by valves in the telescope’s thrusters that were destroyed when maintenance used the wrong solvent to clean them.

An Independent Review Board has developed a list of recommendations for the manufacturer to adhere to, in an effort to keep the rest of the project on target. Northrop Grumman’s CEO Wes Bush said they plan to follow those recommendations. He also agreed that all past and future payments be placed in a holding account and only be released to the company upon the successful completion of the project.

But here’s one thing Northrop Grumman won’t do: they will not pay the overrun costs related to the most recent project delay, despite pressure from some angry Congressmen who were tasked with approving the $800 million it will take to hopefully finish the job.

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