GAO Report: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope: Knowledge-Based Acquisition Approach Key to Addressing Program Challenges

Status Report From: Government Accountability Office
Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2006


GAO-06-634, July 14.

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What GAO Found

Although the JWST program recently revised its acquisition strategy to conform to NASAís acquisition policies, the program still faces considerable challenges because it has not fully implemented a knowledge-based approach, which our past work has shown is often a key factor in program success. In a recent report, we made recommendations that NASA take steps to ensure that projects follow a knowledge-based approach for product development. NASA concurred and revised its acquisition policy. When we initiated our work and before the JWST programís recently revised acquisition strategy, program officials intended to have NASA commit to program start, which is the end of the formulation phase and the beginning of the implementation phase, with immature technologies, according to best practices, and without a preliminary design. During our review, we discussed these shortfalls with NASA officials, and they revised their acquisition strategy to conform to NASA policy. However, the current strategy still does not fully incorporate a knowledge-based approach which ensures that resources match requirements in terms of knowledge, time, and money before program start. If program officials follow the current plan, the maturity of key technologies may not be adequately tested prior to program start. In addition, it appears the program will not have sufficient funding resources to ensure the programís success. In light of the fiscally constrained environment the federal government and NASA will face in the years ahead, adopting a knowledge-based approach will not only increase the JWST programís chances for success but also lay the foundation for comparison between competing programs.

Why GAO Did This Study

The National Aeronautics and Space Administrationís (NASA) James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is being designed to explore the origins and nature of the universe. It should allow scientists to look deeper into spaceóand thus farther back in timeóthan ever before. The program, however, has experienced cost growth of more than $1 billion and its schedule has slipped nearly 2 years. NASA recently restructured the program and now anticipates a launch no sooner than June 2013. Because of the cost and schedule problems, under the Comptroller Generalís authority, we reviewed the JWST program to determine the extent to which this procurement follows NASA acquisition policy and GAO best practices for ensuring that adequate product knowledge is used to make informed investment decisions

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the NASA administrator: (1) direct the JWST program to fully apply a knowledge-based acquisition approach to ensure that adequate knowledge is attained at key decision points and also to hold the program accountable and (2) instruct the JWST program to continue to adhere to NASA acquisition policy and go forward only after demonstrating that it is meeting incremental knowledge markers and has sufficient funds to execute the program. NASA concurred with GAO's reccommendations.

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