Learning from NASA: James Webb Space Telescope

Learn how improved communication and collaboration helped NASA’s project team overcome setbacks and launch the James Webb Space Telescope in this case study.

Twenty-five years after project initiation, billions of dollars in cost overruns and a series of technical failures, spectacular, transcendent images from deep space are beaming back to Earth, visible evidence of the overwhelming success of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). 
Initially conceived as the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, JWST is one of the most complex scientific instruments ever built. NASA authorized the establishment of the project in 1996 — the crown jewel in a series of space telescopes known as NASA’s Great Observatories — and renamed it after former NASA administrator, James Webb, who oversaw the first manned space missions, in 2002. 

JWST features components that are the first of their kind, including a tennis court-sized shield designed to protect the telescope’s instruments from the sun’s heat and a cryocooler that maintains the spacecraft’s light-sensitive Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) at a temperature of not more than 6.7 degrees above absolute zero, or −448 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The system is so complex that the observatory’s design has more than 300 single points of failure, many of which could result in loss of mission. Unlike Hubble, which orbits 350 miles above Earth and can be serviced by astronauts sent up on the Space Shuttle, JWST is nearly one million miles away, so NASA had to get it right the first time. 

In this mosaic image stretching 340 light-years across, Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) displays the Tarantula Nebula star-forming region in a new light, including tens of thousands of never-before-seen young stars that were previously shrouded in cosmic dust. The most active region appears to sparkle with massive young stars, appearing pale blue.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Technical Risk and the Ripple Effect

Few project managers will ever work on a project with the scale and scope of the JWST. But many of the challenges that NASA encountered and the risks that were present are inherent in all types of projects. NASA has a natural advantage in being able to attract some of the world’s best engineering talent but not unusual for a project of this magnitude, technical issues did lead to delays. 

The complexity of JWST meant that any problem, no matter how small, had ripple effects across the entire system. For example, in 2017, technicians working for Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor in charge of spacecraft development and integration, prepared to install a set of valves in the JWST propulsion system. Because the valves had been in storage, it was necessary to flush them clean with a solvent and then conduct a leak check, which exposed problems. A closer examination revealed that technicians failed to contact the valve vendor to confirm the recommended solvent, and as a result they used a solvent that damaged the valves. 

The damage to the valves was not an isolated incident. During an acoustic vibration test in early 2018, multiple screws and washers fell off the spacecraft’s sunshield cover, which pointed to a faulty installation. Other errors included an electrical transducer tested at the wrong power, which required it to be replaced, and a heater that was overstressed at the wrong voltage during testing. 

The process of fully understanding the problem and identifying the proper corrective actions, a common occurrence on megaprojects that Bent Flyvbjerg labeled the “break-fix model,” led to schedule delays and cost overruns.

The Human Factor in Risk Management

The technical problems highlighted broader issues with project communication and governance. NASA leaders were in constant contact with Northrop Grumman, but the time it took to address these issues pointed to a lack of speed, transparency and directness in communication. Given the significance of JWST to NASA, its international partners and the broader scientific community, the project demanded visibility at the highest levels of management. 

Edward J. Hoffman, PhD, NASA’s first chief knowledge officer and founder of the NASA Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership (APPEL) says that at NASA, as with projects in other fields and organizations, the problem comes down to “people, people, people. The biggest weight for the success or the failure of any mission has been the human factor. Engineers and science and technical people like the technical risks because those are the ones they'll figure out.” Indeed, an independent comprehensive review panel (ICRP) conducted in 2010 commended NASA’s technical performance. 

Compounding the economic risk associated with the schedule and cost overruns was the political risk that arose from the need to maintain supportive relationships with lawmakers in Congress and the White House who were responsible for funding the project. More centrally, NASA had to deal with the social risk inherent in bringing large teams together. “How well does NASA work with its people? How well do the engineers work across centers? Do they get the communications they need when they need it? Are they open to different ideas?” says Hoffman, now a PMI strategic advisor. “That is the biggest risk in any mission.” 

Oversight and Effective Project Management

While praising the technical performance on the project, the ICRP criticized the project’s budgeting and program management. Responsibility for cost and schedule overruns was laid squarely at the feet of NASA. They were cited for a history of such problems and had the obligation to provide this information to the government to enable proper oversight. The decision to proceed ultimately came down to a combination of continued scientific research, jobs creation and U.S. prestige built on being on the leading-edge of space exploration. 

Underlying all these challenges was a lack of project management. The ICRP report focused on four specific problems: 

  1. Flawed budget 
  2. Lack of independent project assessment 
  3. Ineffective project management strategy that deferred work to future years to remain under budget 
  4. Lack of clear accountability  

In 2018, NASA set out effective strategies to deal with the technical problems they had encountered, governance and communication issues, and cost and scheduling issues.

After successful completion of its final tests, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is seen here being prepared for shipment to its launch site.

Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Building Teams at NASA

It was at this critical point in 2018 that NASA turned to Gregory Robinson to take charge as program director of JWST. At the time, Mr. Robinson was the deputy associate administrator for programs at NASA, with responsibility for assessing the performance of more than 100 science missions. Robinson initially declined the offer due to his reluctance to leave a job that he was still enjoying and concern over whether he would be accepted at such a late stage in the project. 

“There’s a culture that builds up within a project that’s beyond the institution or the larger organizational culture,” says Robinson in the book, The Smart Mission: NASA’s Lessons for Managing Knowledge, People, and Projects. Robinson notes that these longer-term projects often communicate a message of exclusion to outsiders: “Leave us alone. We got this.” 

Once Robinson agreed to step in, he set out to improve communications. “The communications from the project and down in the project — to me, to our senior leaders and stakeholders — that was a big challenge. That was one of the largest glaring weaknesses, that communication was not good at all,” Robinson told PMI. “The biggest challenge was really getting the team focused — not on the technical — but stepping it up a notch to make sure we were operating as one machine throughout the agency and with our stakeholders.” 

When putting together the teams, Robinson recognized the need to find leaders with the right combination of technical prowess and soft or power skills, something he says he did not fully appreciate early in his career and continues to work on today. “Mentoring is a really big deal. A lot of people mentored me. We didn't even call it that at the time, but I reached out to other senior leaders and basically said, ‘I want to be like you one day when I grow up.’ Certainly in NASA, people are extremely open to helping you and teaching you little points.” For those working to find a way to shine, Robinson recommends a combination of apprenticeship with senior leaders, mentoring, training and development, and networking. 

Robinson also looked for people who were not afraid of being challenged. “The great thing about NASA's history, internally, we've always been able to challenge each other. With some exceptions of course, we tend to end up with a better product. And that challenge has to occur with performance in mind, not taking too long to get it done. So, recognizing people who have that skill or can go deep technically, who are not afraid of being challenged and often communicate.” 

And Robinson worked to increase the team’s project management skills. “We also look at programs where we can put people on what I call a fast track to project management,” he says. “That's through experience, experiential training, classes, mentorship. Put them in a different environment. Let's say someone has been designing all their life, perhaps you would put them in a manufacturing shop, or maybe you put them in an IT environment. That way they can look back and say, ‘If I was designing this thing like I often do, I would never do it this way because it's hard to test it this way.’ So, we try to get that kind of cross learning in there.” 

Iconic Results — JWST Launches 

NASA launched JWST on Christmas day, 2021. Over the course of its first month, as it traveled nearly a million miles into space, a graceful sequence of deployments occurred as the sunshield unfurled and the mirror’s wings swung into place. Each component of the flawless deployment was made possible by the exceptional technical and power skills of the project professionals who made JWST reality. 

“Building an observatory with technologies that have never been built before comes with a myriad of technical, schedule and budget challenges,” says Bonnie Seaton, JWST deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Successfully overcoming these challenges required constant attention to the big picture of budget and schedule while keeping a sharp eye on countless technical details.” 

Ultimately, the driver of any project’s success is the outcome. In the case of JWST, named to PMI’s Most Influential Projects 2022, those outcomes are already being measured by the data and images beamed from deep space and the scientific progress it supports, such as the discovery of a galaxy that dates back 13.5 billion years — the oldest yet. As NASA pursues its exploration of the universe, it continues to teach others to foster a learning culture that is ready for the future, no matter what industry. 



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