NASA's James Webb Space Telescope:

Knowledge-Based Acquisition Approach Key to Addressing Program Challenges

GAO-06-634: Published: Jul 14, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2006.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is being designed to explore the origins and nature of the universe. It should allow scientists to look deeper into space--and thus farther back in time--than ever before. The program, however, has experienced cost growth of more than $1 billion and its schedule has slipped nearly 2 years. NASA recently restructured the program and now anticipates a launch no sooner than June 2013. Because of the cost and schedule problems, under the Comptroller General's authority, we reviewed the JWST program to determine the extent to which this procurement follows NASA acquisition policy and GAO best practices for ensuring that adequate product knowledge is used to make informed investment decisions

Although the JWST program recently revised its acquisition strategy to conform to NASA's acquisition policies, the program still faces considerable challenges because it has not fully implemented a knowledge-based approach, which our past work has shown is often a key factor in program success. In a recent report, we made recommendations that NASA take steps to ensure that projects follow a knowledge-based approach for product development. NASA concurred and revised its acquisition policy. When we initiated our work and before the JWST program's recently revised acquisition strategy, program officials intended to have NASA commit to program start, which is the end of the formulation phase and the beginning of the implementation phase, with immature technologies, according to best practices, and without a preliminary design. During our review, we discussed these shortfalls with NASA officials, and they revised their acquisition strategy to conform to NASA policy. However, the current strategy still does not fully incorporate a knowledge-based approach which ensures that resources match requirements in terms of knowledge, time, and money before program start. If program officials follow the current plan, the maturity of key technologies may not be adequately tested prior to program start. In addition, it appears the program will not have sufficient funding resources to ensure the program's success. In light of the fiscally constrained environment the federal government and NASA will face in the years ahead, adopting a knowledge-based approach will not only increase the JWST program's chances for success but also lay the foundation for comparison between competing programs.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To increase the JWST program's chances of successful product development, the NASA Administrator should direct the JWST program to fully apply a knowledge-based acquisition approach--to include incremental markers--that will not only ensure that adequate knowledge is attained at key decision points, but also hold the program accountable. These markers should include, but not be limited to criteria to demonstrate that mature component designs being used in new configurations meet form, fit, and function standards.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA concurred with our recommendation. In its Terms of Reference document for the James Webb Space Telescope program's Non-advocate Review (NAR) and the planned Technology NAR (TNAR), NASA provided critera responding to our concern about test hardware meeting form, fit, and function standards. The document provides for the evaluation of Technology Readiness Level 6 hardware fidelity as compared to the anticipated flight hardware configuration. According to the Independent Program Assessment Office Review Manager for the NAR Team, the form, fit, and function standards were evaluated during this activity conducted at the TNAR.

    Recommendation: To increase the JWST program's chances of successful product development, the NASA Administrator should direct the JWST program to fully apply a knowledge-based acquisition approach--to include incremental markers--that will not only ensure that adequate knowledge is attained at key decision points, but also hold the program accountable. These markers should include, but not be limited to criteria to ensure the validity of test articles.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA concurred with our recommendation. In its Terms of Reference document for the James Webb Space Telescope program's Non-advocate Review (NAR0 and the planned Technology NAR (TNAR), NASA provided criteria responding to our concern about the validity of test articles. The document contained two activities to meet this criteria--(1) Evaluate the performance requirements for each Technology Readiness Level 6 technology, and the corresponding test requirements, and (2) evaluate how well the test plan and results satisfy the test requirements. According to the Independent Program Assessment Office Review Manager for the NAR Review Team, these activities conducted at the TNAR included ensuring the validity of the test articles.

    Recommendation: To increase the JWST program's chances of successful product development, the NASA Administrator should direct the JWST program to fully apply a knowledge-based acquisition approach--to include incremental markers--that will not only ensure that adequate knowledge is attained at key decision points, but also hold the program accountable. These markers should include, but not be limited to schedules that demonstrate the maturity of all critical technologies prior to program start.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA concurred with our recommendation. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program held a Technology Non-advocate Review to assess the technology readiness of the top ten enabling technologies for the JWST. According to a memorandum from the Non-advocate Review Team, the program demonstrated that the Technology Readiness Level 6 criteria for all 10 enabling technologies had been met. This occurred a year before program start.

    Recommendation: To increase the JWST program's chances of successful product development, the NASA Administrator should instruct the JWST program to continue to adhere to NASA acquisition policy and base the program's go/no-go review (NAR) decision not only on adherence to that policy, but also on (1) the program's ability to demonstrate whether it is meeting the knowledge markers outlined earlier and (2) whether adequate funds are available to execute the program.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA concurred with our recommendation. Our review of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program's master schedule and the Terms of Reference document providing criteria for the Non-advocate Review (NAR) and the Technology NAR (TNAR), as well as the results of the TNAR, indicates that NASA applied our suggested knowledge markers in demonstrating the maturity of the JWST's enabling technologies and included criteria to assess the adequacy of funding during the NAR. It also appears that the program continues to adhere to NASA acquisition policy.

    Recommendation: To increase the JWST program's chances of successful product development, the NASA Administrator should direct the JWST program to fully apply a knowledge-based acquisition approach--to include incremental markers--that will not only ensure that adequate knowledge is attained at key decision points, but also hold the program accountable. These markers should include, but not be limited to criteria to ensure that sufficient contingency funding can be provided and phased appropriately.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA concurred with our recommendations. In its Terms of Reference document for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program's Non-advocate Review (NAR) and the planned Technology NAR, NASA provided criteria responding to our concerns regarding funding for the JWST. One of the assessment criteria that the review team will use as a basis for conducting its assessment for the JWST NAR is adequacy of budget and budget management planning. According to the Independent Program Assessment Office Review Manager for the NAR Review Team, this assessment will include an evaluation of contingency funding and its phasing.

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