The pandemic’s effect on NASA science

The coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame for the latest James Webb Space Telescope launch slip, a seven-month delay to October 31, 2021. (credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)



When the coronavirus pandemic started affecting NASA operations in March, forcing the agency to close centers (see “Space in uncertain times”, The Space Review March 23, 2020), NASA leadership prioritized some activities, like operation of the International Space Station and other spacecraft missions. NASA also elevated the priority of the SpaceX Demo-2 commercial crew test flight and the launch of the Mars 2020 mission.

That prioritization has kept those programs on track: Demo-2 successfully launched May 30, and the Crew Dragon spacecraft is set to return home in early August. Mars 2020, which would be delayed to 2022 if it fails to launch by mid-August, appears on track for a launch now scheduled for July 30 despite some minor launch processing issues that postponed the launch from mid-July.

But while Demo-2 wraps up and Mars 2020 approaches launch, other missions have suffered the effects of the pandemic, none more so than the agency’s biggest science mission, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Last week, NASA announced that the telescope’s launch will slip seven months, to the end of October 2021, due in large part to the slowdown in work during the pandemic.

Another JWST delay

JWST entered 2020 with nagging doubts about its ability to stay on schedule. The mission had suffered billions of dollars in cost overruns and years of delays, most recently in 2018 when NASA pushed back the launch of the telescope to March 2021 because of problems during its development and testing. In January, project officials acknowledged they were down to two months of schedule reserve, yet remained optimistic that they could keep the mission on track for a launch next March (see “Balancing astronomical visions with budgetary realities”, The Space Review, January 13, 2020).

The pandemic, though, wiped out that optimism. Work on the telescope, in a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California, briefly halted in March as NASA personnel assigned to oversee it returned home, then continued at a slower pace. While Northrop was able to add more shifts in May to get back to nearly full staffing, there were growing doubts that the March 2021 launch date could hold.

By June, those fears were realized. “We will not launch in March, absolutely will not launch in March,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said at a National Academies committee meeting. “It’s just not going to be in the cards. It’s not the fault or some kind of mismanagement of some type.”

At the time, he declined to give a new launch date, saying the agency needed to review the upcoming work, and how it would be altered by the pandemic. “I’m very optimistic of this thing getting off the launch pad in ’21.”

Last week, NASA announced the results of that review: the schedule for the mission has slipped seven months, with a new official launch date of October 31, 2021, on an Ariane 5 from French Guiana.

“When determining the new launch date and schedule, we factored in a number of impacts,” said Greg Robinson, NASA JWST program director, in a call with reporters last Thursday to announce the delay. Those included both delays from the slowdown in work in the last four months as well as “expected reduced work efficiencies” in the future because of social distancing protocols.

Those measures, though, only accounted for what he described as “three plus” months of the seven-month slip. Two more months were added to increase schedule reserve to recommended levels. Another two months was added, he said, based on lessons learned earlier in the project on how long it took to do some activities, like vibration testing and the deployment and stowing of its sunshield, which are among the final series of tests for the spacecraft before shipment to the launch site.

What hasn’t changed, though, is the mission’s budget, which has a cost cap of $8.8 billion through launch set by Congress. Robinson said that seven-month delay can be covered by budget reserves within that cost cap, but didn’t state if the delay would consume all of the remaining reserves.

“There were reserves that we were holding—we call then Unallocated Future Expenses, or UFE—that we hold at headquarters to handle these kinds of unforeseen issues,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator. “Those reserves are now being deployed to absorb the delay.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that the delay is “free” to NASA. “For any mission that we use reserves on, there is an opportunity cost,” he said. “If we had hit March of 2021, those reserves could have been released to cover issues on other programs, or maybe start or accelerate a mission.”

Other science impacts

JWST is the biggest example of a science mission affected by the pandemic, but likely not the only one. Jurczyk said that, during the pandemic, the agency switched from tracking performance of programs against their cost and schedule baselines to how they were affected by the pandemic. That includes determining if those impacts can be absorbed within each program’s reserves of if they need to be “rebaselined” in terms of cost or schedule.

“We haven’t made decisions yet to rebaseline any other program like we’ve done with the launch date for James Webb Space Telescope,” he said. “But as we go month to month, and those impacts become more well known and quantified, we’ll assess whether we can move forward on the current baseline and the reserves we have, or we need to rebaseline those programs as required.”

One example of a smaller mission facing a delay is Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), a small astrophysics mission under development at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “It was strongly impacted by COVID when we had a three-month stop-work [order] at Marshall,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said at an advisory committee meeting in June. That work has resumed, but the stoppage took place during a key period of integration and testing of the spacecraft. The project quietly announced on its website that its launch, which was scheduled for May 2021, will be delayed to “sometime later that year.”

The impact of the pandemic on NASA’s science program goes beyond delayed missions. Many scientists, either working for or funded by NASA, have had research disrupted by the pandemic, unable to access their labs or trying to adjust to working from home (further complicated, for those in academia, with the disruption of also teaching remotely.)

At an online town hall meeting July 9, Zurbuchen and other NASA Science Mission Directorate outlined new policies for supporting researchers during the pandemic.

“We’ve been saying for quite a while that we don’t want the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to massively derail careers of our future leaders,” said Michael New, deputy associate administrator for research.

He outlined a “three-prong strategy” to address those concerns. One is to allow researchers to seek funded extensions to existing awards. NASA, he said, will prioritize requests from graduate students and postdocs, then “soft money” early-career researchers, then everyone else. That’s intended to cover the costs of delays when labs and other research facilities were closed, as well as restart costs.

A second prong will be to expand a NASA postdoctoral program that currently supports 125 researchers by 50% over the next few months. Some will be to support new researchers, while others will get an additional year of funding. A third prong will be adding an unspecified number of “term-limited” positions at NASA centers.

But those measures, while intended to support scientists, especially those early in their careers, will come at a cost. “All three of these actions, as important as they are, come from the same pot of money that we use to fund all of our new awards” for the 2021 fiscal year, New said. The exact cost remains to be determined, he said, but he estimated it to be 10–20% of the money that would have been available next year for new awards.

At both that town hall meeting and the later meeting about the JWST delay, agency officials remained optimistic about the future. During the call about JWST, they emphasized the important science that the space telescope will do when it’s finally launched.

It just needs to be completed and launched, then go through a complex series of deployments of its primary mirror and sunshield. “I will be holding my breath until we get all the deployments done and get the observatory into its science configuration,” Jurczyk said.

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