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James Webb Space Telescope: Project Facing Increased Schedule Risk with Significant Work Remaining

GAO-15-100 Published: Dec 15, 2014. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2014.
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What GAO Found

With just under 4 years until its planned launch in October 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project reports it remains on schedule and budget. Technical challenges with JWST elements and major subsystems, however, have diminished the project's overall schedule reserve and increased risk. During the past year, delays have occurred on every element and major subsystem schedule—especially with the cryocooler—leaving all at risk of negatively impacting the overall project schedule reserve if further delays occur.

Schedule Reserve Changes on the James Webb Space Telescope's Elements and Major Subsystems from 2013 to 2014

Schedule Reserve Changes on the James Webb Space Telescope's Elements and Major Subsystems from 2013 to 2014

aThe cryocooler chills an infrared light detector on one of JWST's four scientific instruments.

The project reports its overall schedule reserve is above its plan and standards. However, JWST is one of the most complex projects in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) history and has begun integrating and testing only two of the five elements and major subsystems. As such, maintaining as much schedule reserve as possible to navigate through almost 4 more years of integration and testing that remains, where prior work has shown problems are commonly found and schedules tend to slip, is critical. While the project has been able to reorganize work when necessary to mitigate schedule slips, this flexibility will diminish going forward. JWST is also facing limited short-term cost reserves to mitigate additional project schedule threats.

The JWST project and prime contractor's cost risk analyses used to validate the JWST budget are outdated and do not account for many new risks identified since 2011. GAO best practices for cost estimating call for regularly updating cost risk analyses to validate that reserves are sufficient to account for new risks. NASA officials said they conduct sufficient analysis to monitor the health of the budget. These efforts, however, do not incorporate potential impacts of risks identified since 2011 into estimates. While the project has subsequently agreed to conduct a cost risk analysis of the contract, it is important that they follow best practices, for example, by regularly updating that analysis. Doing so would provide the project with reliable information to gauge whether the contractor is at risk of future cost overruns.

Why GAO Did This Study

JWST is one of NASA's most complex and expensive projects, at an anticipated cost of $8.8 billion. With significant integration and testing planned until the launch date, the JWST project will need to address many challenges before NASA can conduct the science the telescope is intended to produce. GAO has made a number of prior recommendations to NASA, including in December 2012 that the project perform an updated joint cost and schedule risk analysis to improve cost estimates. NASA initially concurred with this recommendation, but it later indicated that the tracking of information it already had in place was sufficient and ultimately decided not to conduct another joint cost and schedule risk analysis.

GAO was mandated to assess the program annually and report on its progress. This is the third such report. This report assesses, among other issues, the extent to which (1) technical challenges are impacting the JWST project's ability to stay on schedule and budget, and (2) budget and cost estimates reflect current information about project risks. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed monthly and quarterly JWST reports, interviewed NASA and contractor officials, reviewed relevant policies, and conducted independent analysis of NASA and contractor data.


Among other actions, NASA should follow best practices when updating its cost risk analysis to ensure reliability. In commenting on a draft of this report, NASA partially concurred with this recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Aeronautics and Space Administration In order to provide additional information and analyses to effectively manage the program and account for new risks identified after the 2011 replan, the NASA Administrator should direct JWST project officials to follow best practices while conducting a cost risk analysis on the prime contract for the work remaining and ensure the analysis is updated as significant risks emerge.
Closed – Not Implemented
JWST did conduct a cost risk analysis and provided the results to GAO. We reported in "James Webb Space Telescope: Project on Track but May Benefit from Improved Contractor Data to Better Understand Costs" (GAO-16-112) that it substantially met best practices. However, the project stated they did not plan to update the analysis as significant risks emerged, which is a key element of the recommendation. Since then, this recommendation has been overcome by events. In June 2018, the program had to rebaseline its cost and schedule estimates and is now conducting new analyses to support upcoming reviews.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration In order to ensure JWST's award fee contracts' final evaluations thoroughly and fairly evaluate contractor performance over the life of the contract and to provide clarity to the process that will be used for the final evaluation, the NASA Administrator should direct JWST project officials, in conjunction with the performance evaluation board for JWST and the Goddard Space Flight Center fee determining official, to modify performance evaluation plans for its award fee contracts to ensure they (a) specify evaluation criteria that reflects total contract performance in advance of the final evaluation, and (b) clearly describe the process the performance evaluation board and fee determining official will use to evaluate contractor performance in the final evaluation.
Closed – Implemented
In December 2014, GAO reported that the final contractor award fee evaluation plans for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project did not meet NASA award fee guidance or procurement regulations. As a result, GAO recommended that JWST program officials, along with the project's Performance Evaluation Board and the Goddard Space Flight Center Fee Determining Official, modify the performance evaluation plans to reflect the total contract performance of the contractor and clearly describe the final contractor performance evaluation process for its award fee contracts. In response to this recommendation, the JWST project concurred and revised the performance evaluation plans for its two major contractors - Northrop Grumman and Exelis. GAO reviewed the revisions and believes JWST project officials fulfilled the recommendation by specifying the process by which the factors and criteria in the performance evaluation plan will be used in the final evaluation and specifically indicating that the final evaluation will take into account Northrup Grumman's and Exelis' performance over the life the contract.

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Best practicesBudgetingContract performanceContractor paymentsCost analysisDelivery termsEvaluation criteriaFederal procurementFuture budget projectionsPrime contractorsProgram evaluationProgram managementRisk assessmentSchedule slippagesSource selectionSubcontractorsCost estimatesSpace telescopes