It seems like just about every high profile, government-funded endeavor in recent years has been met with repeated delays and constantly swelling budgets. Whether it’s the new Ford class aircraft carrier that came in at around $2.5 billion over budget, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that remains too expensive to operate, or NASA’s perpetually delayed effort to put Americans back into space aboard American rockets, the Space Launch System — America’s relationships with contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman sometimes seem rather one-sided, with huge sums of money heading into the coffers of these corporations, and nothing but delays and excuses offered up in return.
In a recent hearing of the House Science Committee, the frustrations surrounding these issues began to bubble to the surface, as discussions with Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush turned toward the delayed and massively over-budget James Webb Space Telescope — slated to replace the aging Hubble. While a number of the members of the panel pushed for ways the government and its contractors could work to avoid these issues in the future, some, like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), wanted to see a greater level of financial responsibility placed on the contractors being paid. The James Webb telescope is now expected to exceed $800 million above the program’s original $8 billion budget.
“Would you agree to pay the 800 [million dollars] above capped costs?” He asked Bush. Of course, Bush refused the offer — citing the efforts his company is making to eliminate the human errors that have thus far led to a series of lengthy and expensive setbacks.
“Our view on that is that would create more of a fixed-price relationship on this program, which would significantly impede and impair the relationship between NASA and Northrop Grumman,” he responded. “As we are focused on mission success, we think that would be the wrong approach.”
However, that’s not to say that Northrop is looking for ways to ensure the government gets their money’s worth out of the endeavor. Bush went on to offer an agreement that would make all fees due to Northrop for the program at risk based on the ultimate performance of the telescope. In short, he offered to give back Northrop’s profits tied to the Webb program if they aren’t able to get the telescope into the sky, functioning properly.
“As a mechanism to ensure we are all aligned on mission success, Northrop Grumman has actually discussed this with NASA, and we are willing to place all of the fee that we’ve already earned and the fee that we may earn in the future at risk based on successful activation and demonstration of the telescope on orbit,” he told Congress. At almost a billion dollars over budget, that gesture wasn’t quite enough to subvert the sense that the blank-check approach to these high-dollar programs may rapidly be coming to a close.
“I only wish that Northrop Grumman was willing to take responsibility and show a little bit more good faith,” Congressman Smith told Bush. “But it sounds like you’ve made up your mind. I just happen to disagree with you.”
Smith was further bothered by Bush’s unwillingness to discuss Northrop’s net profits last year, as they continued to go over budget on the Webb telescope, and more so when Bush explained that no one within Northrop had lost their jobs as a result of a series of expensive errors and delays. Bush did, however, explain that Northrop has added a “safety net” system that hopes to catch human errors before they can grow too costly, and they have adopted a number of recommendations made by an Independent Review Board made a little over a month ago.
“We’re never going to be able to get human errors to zero. The word ‘human’ in that equation tells you that,” he said.
While the hearing concluded with most members of the House Science Committee seemingly pleased with the changes being implemented at Northrop with an eye toward staying on budget, some critical voices remained.
“I cannot join you in this uplifting testimony,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said to Bush. “Whoever was responsible for JWST at the company, failed us and failed the American people.”
Featured image: The OTIS out of its cryovac chamber at NASA Johnson. The OTIS is an acronym that includes the Optical Telescope Element (OTE) plus the Integrated Science Instrument (ISIM) package – essentially the optics and science instruments. | NASA/Chris Gunn