The Sciences

Followup on MSL: Griffin's spin

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitDec 4, 2008 6:00 PM


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I just wrote about the delay in the MSL mission. During the NASA press conference, NASA Admin Mike Griffin was asked about NASA's endemic cost overruns, specifically the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, an ambitious successor to Hubble. Griffin's response to this made my jaw drop: he said that JWST is not suffering cost overruns, and in fact "in no way" could you say it is over budget. Griffin is so overwhelmingly wrong in that statement that I have to say that at best this is incredible spin on his part. In the late 1990s, when JWST was first being designed, its estimated cost of JWST was about $900 million (that included a ten-year lifetime operations cost, though not the $450 million launch cost). Its current cost? $4.5 billion. It's very hard to reconcile that last number with Mike Griffin's statement that in no way can you say JWST is over budget. To be very generous, he may be saying that it's not over budget right now. But the current budget is several times the original one, so again, at best, what Griffin said was spin. Incredibly, later in the conference, Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Ed Weiler exacerbated this. Comparing JWST to a sample return mission from Mars, he said (paraphrasing from my memory): "Saying a sample return mission would cost [an unreasonably low] 3 or 4 billion dollars is like saying we could build JWST for a billion." WHAT? Dr. Weiler, that was what NASA originally said JWST would cost! Sigh. Now look: I think NASA is worth the money. I am of the opinion that we don't spend enough on NASA, and that what they do for the money they have is nothing short of astonishing. I understand the public grossly misunderstands what NASA costs, but I don't think it helps at all for the top leaders at NASA to be saying things like this. NASA, here's my advice; make of it what you will: don't exaggerate. Don't spin, don't fold, don't mutilate. Give it to us straight. Make sure the budgets you present are accurate in the first place. But if they do run over, admit it, apologize, figure out why it happened, put strategies in place to prevent it happening again, and then (to repeat) give it to us straight. People like me already have enough trouble letting the public know that what NASA does is something humans should be doing. Spin like this is not making it any easier.

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