Scrapping the James Webb Telescope

The James Webb Telescope has become a political football since it, predictably, has run over time and budget. Why can't N.A.S.A. and Congress do better financial planning?

What's the Latest Development?

Some in Congress are calling for the funding of the James Webb Space Telescope to be revoked, thereby cancelling the project. The telescope is currently expected to be finished four years late and run $6 billion over budget. But lowballing the cost of projects before Congress is just the way America does business, says Edward Weiler, retired head of N.A.S.A. space sciences. "You bid optimistically. That's not just a problem with the James Webb Space Telescope. We see it at N.A.S.A. all the time; you see it at defense contractors."

What's the Big Idea?

Perhaps estimating the cost of a project which has never been done before is impossible by definition. But when it comes to ambitious projects, one might notice a pattern of delays and extra funding requests. So should financial managers be more frank with Congress about how much projects are really likely to cost? "The question is whether the benefit of greater realism in the majority of cases would be offset by the loss of benefits if legislators ruled out all projects that were likely to produce substantial cost overruns," says the Atlantic's Edward Tenner. 

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