It’s not a nice story to tell…but then for some it’s juicy and has all those interesting facts that become “lessons learned”…which of course no-one ever learns! I’m talking about when a shiny, exciting space engineering project becomes a swamp of overrunning costs.
Now I’m not trying to be a cynic here. It’s just an inescapable truth that for a lot of space engineering (and any engineering) people tend to do the same things when it comes to bidding, costing and managing projects….And that means they tend to get the same results – cost overruns.
So it’s interesting (and a little disappointing) to see that the James Webb telescope, the successor to Hubble, is overrunning to the tune of some billions of dollars.
Here’s a very blunt take on it:
Telescope debacle devours NASA funds
Yet being realistic, there is always that balance between taking on the BIG missions. Making all that new technology and even moving mankind’s presence in space that bit forward.
Let’s not forget that any new technology in space is really pushing the frontier. And it’s this lure, this attraction that can sometimes be the end of a project. Or as close to it. A colleague once told me that even with cost overruns, no-one ever remembers the manager’s mistake. It’s the engineering ones that people always think about.
Case in point being the Challenger tragedy: you know and I know it was the O-rings. But the real story was why those O-rings were allowed to be the boosters in the first place under those conditions. Money and cost were big factors. They always are. Even with the outcome that happened.
I hope that the James Webb telescope gets built and launched, even if it costs more. And I hope it really does deliver. But then if it doesn’t for many it’ll be an expensive failure. Fingers will invariably be pointed at such a waste of engineering, science and resources.
And those runaway costs will be used as a branch to beat anyone who doesn’t agree. Isn’t it funny though: in the UK over 700 billion pounds was used to “save” the banks and the economy. It just had to be done.
Now I’m not going to argue for or against this (personally the jury is still out on this)..but isn’t it interesting that the idea that people could strive to build a space telescope, go through all the challenges and overcome them…and have it fail…but fail under odds that every mission planner knows..
That this would be seen as a failure and a waste of money, rather than yes, an unsuccessful mission, but a fantastic journey in which so much knowledge and expertise has been developed. A journey that has delivered a lot of value to the people working on it.
And compare that with the knowledge and expertise gained by handing out 700 billion pounds to the same system that lost it. Whether it knew the risks or not. Essential to keep the economy afloat, perhaps.
But giving more value even if it goes wrong? Doubtful.
Even if a space project overruns badly and then fails – you always learn something. And it’s a lot cheaper to learn it than what happened with the economy. I think we are still learning that one.
So maybe critics shouldn’t be THAT hard on the James Webb project.