Artist’s view of James Webb Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA

A new report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), Engineering, and Medicine has taken a look at NASA’s large strategic missions.

The message stemming from the report is that NASA should continue its large strategic missions to maintain United States’ global leadership in space.

But there’s a caveat. Controlling the costs of these large missions remains vital in order to preserve the overall stability of the program, the report finds.


To that point, concerns have been raised in the past about NASA’s large missions – a history of costs exceeding original estimates, impacting the overall budget of the agency.

For instance, the poster-child for escalating dollars and delays is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This large mission experienced substantial cost growth.  Big jumps in costs for a mission can have an impact on the entire science program at NASA, the report explains. The total cost of JWST is roughly $10 billion and is to be launched in 2018.

In short, cost overruns in one space sector can influence projects large and small within NASA’s astrophysics, earth science, heliophysics, and planetary science portfolio.

The report adds that NASA is hoping to keep the now-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope operational until at least 2020 to allow for at least one year of overlap with the JWST.

NASA’s venerable Hubble Space Telescope – still carrying out sightseeing observations thanks to several servicing missions.
Credit: NASA


The new report – under the wing of the NAS Space Science Board and authored by a Committee on Large Strategic NASA Science Missions: Science Value and Role in a Balanced Portfolio — underscores how best to identify in decadal surveys what goals are most desirable at different budget levels.

“This approach will allow NASA to develop, if needed, less expensive implementation strategies (known as ‘de-scoping’) for missions so that they do not exceed budget constraints that may arise in the future,” notes a NAS press statement on the report. “It could also identify opportunities to ‘up-scope’ such missions to perform greater science, should budgets and the program balance allow.”

New estimation tools

A report recommendation is that NASA should support the development of “new estimation tools” to perform robust cost estimates and risk assessment for future missions.

“New technologies will require new methods of estimating costs,” said Kathryn Thornton, committee co-chair and director of the aerospace engineering program at the University of Virginia, who also helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope during its first in-orbit servicing mission.

“Although NASA has gotten better at developing such tools, the agency will have to adapt its ways as technology evolves.”

As example, new technologies, like CubeSats, particularly in large constellations, “will require new methods of cost estimation, some of which are already being developed by industry,” the new report notes. While NASA has become better at estimating costs, “the agency will have to adapt its methods as technology evolves.”

To read the full report, Powering Science: NASA’s Large Strategic Science Missions, sponsored by NASA, go to:

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