Too big to fail?

NASA and others are still confident the James Webb Space Telescope will eventually get to space and make major discoveries, despite its latest cost and schedule problems. (credit: NASA)





Most everyone in the space community expected bad news when NASA announced last week it would provide an update on the status of the James Webb Space Telescope. The only question was how bad the news would be.

Pretty bad, it turned out.

Three months after NASA announced that the launch of JWST would slip from the spring of 2019 to May 2020 (see “A tangled Webb of delays”, The Space Review, April 2, 2018), NASA announced a new launch date for the giant space telescope: March 30, 2021.

Those two delays, as well as a six-month delay from October 2018 announced last September, meant that the telescope’s launch had been delayed nearly two and a half years in the last nine months. In other words, JWST is further from launch now than the agency believed it was last September.

The latest date came after a review by an independent review board set up by NASA after the March delay announcement. That committee, chaired by former Lockheed Martin executive and NASA center director Tom Young, reviewed the status of the mission’s development and provided its assessment of its schedule.

“JWST is an observatory with incredible capability, and also scientific potential, and significant complexity, risk and first-time events,” Young said in a teleconference June 27 to discuss his report’s findings.

Part of the problem with the May 2020 date, he said, was overconfidence in the schedule of events needed to complete integration and testing of the telescope, even after the one-year slip announced three months earlier. “It was our assessment that, still, too much optimism has been built into the schedule,” he said. “When we implemented what was, in our view, a more realistic assessment as to the time it would take to do these various events, that was one factor.”

A second factor was an incident that took place during testing of JWST’s spacecraft and sunshield while Young’s board was doing their work. After an acoustics test of the spacecraft in late April, technicians noticed fasteners appeared to have come off the spacecraft’s sunshield cover and collected inside the spacecraft.

That news was first reported at a meeting of the Space Studies Board in early May by Greg Robinson, the JWST program director at NASA headquarters. “It’s not terrible news, but it’s not good news, either,” he said then.

It wasn’t good news for the JWST schedule. That issue, Young said, added “something in the neighborhood, round numbers, of six months to the schedule.”

Young and his committee’s report was critical of a number of problems with JWST’s development that could be linked to human error. Besides the fastener issue, those errors included cleaning valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system with the wrong solvent, requiring the valves to be replaced. Workers also damaged transducers in the propulsion system by applying excess voltage, a result of “an improper interpretation of a process step,” according to the board’s report.

In contrast to issues with JWST’s sunshield, which Young noted was a first-of-its-kind component with no heritage, the valve and other problems caused by human error could have been easily prevented with the proper procedures. “The solvent problem could have been resolved by checking the appropriateness of the solvent with the valve vendor,” he said, something that apparently wasn’t done. “This is really a mistake that should not have happened.”

Combined, he said those human errors resulted in 18 months of schedule delay and $600 million in costs. The board called on NASA and Northrop Grumman, the spacecraft prime contractor, to develop a better “safety net” of testing and inspection processes to prevent such human errors in the future. It also recommended an in-depth audit of hardware and procedures to identify any other “embedded problems” with the spacecraft as soon as possible, before they become more difficult and costly to correct.

Special attention, Young added, needs to be paid to the systems related to the commissioning of the spacecraft, including the deployment of the telescope and sunshield. “Commissioning is similar to entry, descent and landing for a Mars lander mission in that it is high-risk with many single-point failures and it cannot be tested as you fly,” he said. Those Mars missions, he said, employ a “world-class systems engineer” to oversee those elements of the spacecraft, and the board recommended a similar position be created to oversee those critical elements of JWST.

The new March 2021 date is set at the 80 percent confidence level, Young said, which means that there is an 80 percent chance the spacecraft will be ready for launch by then. However, it also means a 20 percent chance of another delay. That date, he said, assumes that NASA and Northrop successfully implement the recommendations in the report.

“No allowance has been made for additional [integration and testing] errors and embedded problems with multi-month impacts, additional sunshield deployments beyond the currently planned two, or removal of a spacecraft system or science instrument,” he said.

Cost and other impacts

The revised schedule brings with it additional costs. JWST now has a development cost of $8.8 billion, which covers the mission through launch, and a lifecycle cost, which includes those development costs and five years of operations, of $9.66 billion.

That increase is significant since it breaks a cost cap of $8 billion for development established by Congress when JWST was “re-planned” after a near-death experience in 2011. Breaching the cost cap requires Congress to formally reauthorize the mission.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, confirmed that was the case in the call. A final report on the cost breach was delivered to Congress around the time the agency announced the new delay, he said. “Congress will have to reauthorize Webb through this cycle of appropriations,” he said, a reference to the ongoing deliberations on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget.

The challenge for NASA will not be for 2019 but in future years. NASA requested $304.6 million for JWST in 2019, which the House and Senate, in their separate spending bills, showed a willingness to support. However, that budget projected spending to drop to $197.2 million in 2020 and about $150 million a year in 2021 and 2022, reflecting plans at the time that called for JWST to be in operation by then.

Instead, JWST will be on the ground until the halfway through fiscal year 2021. That will require, Jurczyk said, an additional $837 million in those “outyears” of 2020 and 2021 compared to the administration’s request. “We’re in the process of defining our budget for 2020 right now, and we’ll build that into our request,” he said.

But where will that money come from? The expectation is that it will come from elsewhere in astrophysics, unless Congress is willing to provide additional funding to cover the overrun. “Beyond FY19 is still TBD,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, at an advisory committee meeting July 2. “The hope is that most of that taken through astrophysics or other ways.”

In a presentation to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee a few hours after the announcement, Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, noted that the change will require, in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, $490 million in additional funding, as the operational funding previously budgeted for those years will be used for development instead, along with unspent reserves.

If the JWST funding comes out of astrophysics, Hertz estimates that delaying a proposed “probe-class” mission by three years, providing $350 million of that additional funding. The other $140 million could come from other, unspecified reductions in the astrophysics portfolio.

But will Congress agree? At the time of the announcement, NASA officials declined to speculate on what Capitol Hill thought about the mission. “I think it’s too early to give an exact sense of what’s happening there,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “The science is compelling and remains compelling as we go forward, but I think it would be premature to give, beyond that, a real sense of where we’re going.”

Those members who mentioned this latest delay and budget increase seemed resigned to it, rather than actively opposed to reauthorizing the mission. “I hope and expect that NASA and Northrop Grumman will take the [independent review board’s] recommendations to heart so that Congress can have confidence that the taxpayer dollars invested in this project are not wasted or adversely impact the rest of NASA’s science programs,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee. “That said, I strongly support completion of JWST and look forward to the stream of discoveries that will flow from it.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, has previously expressed frustration with NASA programs experiencing cost and schedule problems. In a brief statement after last week’s report, he reiterated previous plans to hold a hearing about JWST in July with Young, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, and Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush, but gave no hints he was opposed to reauthorizing the mission.

In the media call about the report, some raised questions about Northrop’s responsibility in the delays, and if the company faced any financial penalties. “This is a very large, complex systems development,” said Jurcyzk, noting the use of cost-plus contracts. He said plans are set on six-month increments that allow the company, if successful, to collect award fees. “Their award fees have reflected their performance in their previous periods and will reflect their performance moving forward.” He didn’t explicitly state what award fees, if any, Northrop collected recently.

NASA’s message, both at the announcement and elsewhere, is that the agency planned to move ahead with JWST despite this latest setback. “Yes, it’s behind schedule. Yes, it is over cost. Nobody at NASA is happy about this,” Bridenstine said at an event later that day held by Politico. “But I will tell you this, though, and I think this is critically important: it will absolutely be worth it.”

His message, and that of other NASA officials, was that the science return JWST offered was worth the additional cost and schedule delay. “My message to the Hill is going to be that, in the end, it’s going to be worth it. Our number one focus needs to be mission accomplishment,” he said, adding that he felt that members of the House Science Committee, which he previously served on, “are committed to it. They have been all along, they believe in it, they want to see it happen.”

“Make no mistake: I’m not happy sitting here to share this story,” said Zurbuchen of the delay. Northrop is the prime contractor, but he noted that NASA had oversight, something the agency moved to strengthen after the delays announced in March. “So we take responsibility as well.”

NASA’s message, made explicitly clear at the beginning and end of the media teleconference, was that “Webb is worth the wait,” with less discussion about how its problems might affect future NASA astrophysics and other science missions.

“We’re certainly annoyed that we have to wait because that telescope seemed like it was coming soon, and we had already decided what to do with the first half-year of observations,” said John Mather, the senior project scientist for JWST and a Nobel laureate in physics. “So we’re going to have to wait, but on the other hand, I think we’re really pleased that we’re going to make sure that it works.”


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