Budget Reserves Will Prevent JWST Cost Overrun

Budget Reserves Will Prevent JWST Cost Overrun

Budget reserves held at NASA headquarters will pay for the extra time needed to get the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) ready for launch according a NASA official who spoke to an advisory committee today.  He asserted that no other NASA astrophysics programs will be affected by the recently announced launch delay.

Eric Smith, JWST Program Director, assured the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC) that the delay will not increase JWST program costs and therefore will not impact funding for other NASA astrophysics programs.

NASA recently announced that the launch of the $8 billion JWST would be delayed by at least six months because of integration problems at the telescope’s prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (NGAS).

Artist’s rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA.

The launch date of October 2018, which has been on the books since 2011, will slip to March 31 – June 29, 2019.  The exact date is not known, Smith said, because the contract modification with NGAS is not completed and another technical issue involving the spacecraft’s thrusters also must be resolved.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is providing the launch on an Ariane rocket as part of a cooperative agreement with NASA. Several months ago NASA revealed that the JWST launch date might slip because ESA needed to use the October 2018 launch window for one of its own planetary missions, BepiColumbo.  That spacecraft, being built in cooperation with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), will study Mercury and can be launched only at certain times of the year.  Smith said today that the launch date conflict ultimately was irrelevant because “we had to move [the date] for our own reasons.”

The JWST program was restructured in 2011 in response to repeated cost overruns and schedule delays. The new plan included healthy built-in budget and schedule reserves to deal with any unexpected problems that might arise.  The point of having reserves is that in any advanced technology program like JWST, “unknown unknowns” will be encountered that affect cost and schedule.  If planning is done effectively, by the time of launch, all the reserves will be exhausted.  The key is not to exceed the reserves and create new overruns or delays.

NASA has been open about how those reserves are being expended, routinely presenting updates to advisory committees and others, such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO).   APAC members were surprised, however, by the assertion that the new 6- month delay can be accommodated within the reserves since the last chart they saw showed than only 3.5 months of schedule reserve remained.

Eric Smith, JWST Program Director, NASA. Credit: NASA.

Smith explained that in addition to the project itself, which is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA headquarters holds its own program reserves in case a situation like this arises.  Smith is the Program Director, located at headquarters.  The JWST Project Manager, Bill Ochs, at Goddard, reports to him.

This management structure, with a dedicated program office at headquarters overseeing the project office, was put in place at the time of the 2011 restructuring with the goal of avoiding future overruns and delays. The 2010 Casani report, led by JPL’s John Casani, identified “budgeting and program management, not technical performance” as the cause of the significant overruns and delays experienced by the project to that point.

As Smith told APAC today, headquarters holds its own program reserves that are not included when project reserves are shown.  “We have budget reserve at headquarters,” he explained, and “we can use that money to buy more time” to deal with the integration delays at NGAS.

Smith also said that leaks were discovered in small monopropellant thruster valves on the JWST spacecraft and all 16 have been removed.  They “will require replacement or rework” and “options for reattachment [are] also being evaluated.”

NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz also spoke to APAC today.  Among the many topics he covered, he noted that NASA is cooperating with ESA on its Euclid mission to investigate dark energy and dark matter.  NASA is supplying sensor chip electronics, but they are failing.  The problems did not show up in qualification tests before they were delivered to ESA.  The electronic package will have to be resdesigned,  remanufactured and recertified, resulting in a 12-month schedule delay.

Hertz also provided an update on an independent review of the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), the next flagship space telescope being developed by NASA.  Two reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have raised concerns about whether the program is being properly formulated to ensure it stays within cost and schedule, unlike JWST.  In response to a recommendation from the Academies, in August NASA initiated a panel to conduct a WFIRST Independent External Technology-Management-Cost (TMC) Review — WIETR.  Hertz said today that after an intensive two month review, the WIETR panel will formally submit its findings to NASA tomorrow (October 19) and NASA will comment on it that day.

Note:  This article has been updated.





User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.