Coronavirus Suspends Work on the James Webb Space Telescope

Coronavirus Suspends Work on the James Webb Space Telescope

NASA announced another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic today.  Integration and testing of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at its prime contractor in California has been suspended.  Earlier in the day, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said the coronavirus crisis is impacting all of his programs as NASA facilities move to telework-only and local and state jurisdictions institute measures to stop the spread of the virus.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In what has become a daily ritual, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine issued a message late in the day with more news about how the coronavirus is affecting NASA’s mission.  Yesterday, it was that production and testing of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft at Stennis Space Center and Michoud Assembly Facility were suspended as those facilities were placed in Stage 4 of NASA’s Response Framework.  That means the only personnel allowed on site are those needed to maintain safety and security.

Today, it is JWST.   The follow-on to the popular Hubble Space Telescope, years late and billions over budget, it was on track for launch in March 2021, though some NASA officials were hinting there might be another delay.  Today’s action almost certainly assures it.

The James Webb Space Telescope team … is suspending integration and testing operations. Decisions could be adjusted as the situation continues to unfold over the weekend and into next week. The decision was made to ensure the safety of the workforce. The observatory remains safe in its cleanroom environment. — NASA

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST and the spacecraft and its science payload are now at the company’s facilities in California.  The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, issued a state-wide shelter-in-place order yesterday.

In a virtual briefing to the NASA science community this morning, Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, acknowledged that the coronavirus is affecting all his programs as NASA facilities move to telework-only.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate. Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

The teleconference, primarily about NASA’s FY2021 budget request for science, was organized before mandatory telework measures were put in place and fortuitously set up as a virtual meeting already.

The budget briefing itself covered familiar ground since the presentations already had been made to a number of advisory committees since the budget was released in February.  The main overall message was reminding everyone that it is only a proposal and Congress will have the final word.  That it calls for cancelling two Earth science programs (PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder), two astrophysics programs (WFIRST and SOFIA), and sharply cutting funding for two existing Mars missions (Odyssey and Curiosity) is a reflection of NASA’s negotiations with the White House Office of Management and Budget, not NASA’s own preferences.  Congress is strongly supportive of NASA’s science programs and historically rejects such proposals, though no promises can be made.

Indeed, how Congress will deal with FY2021 approprations for NASA and the rest of the government after approving billions and billions to keep the economy above water during the coronavirus crisis is anyone’s guess.

COVID-19 is weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, including the NASA science community, which encompasses scientists and engineers in the government, industry and academia.  Zurbuchen wanted to convey that the agency’s principles are to “focus on our people and our mission … in that order of priority.”

Three NASA facilities — Ames Research Center, Stennis and Michoud — now are in Stage 4 of the agency’s Response Framework, meaning the only personnel allowed on site are those needed to maintain safety and security.  All other NASA facilities, including Headquarters, are in Stage 3 — mandatory telework except for those who are mission-essential.  Zurbuchen shared that he was phoning in from what used to be the guest bedroom in his home, now converted to an office.  The other NASA officials on the call also participated virtually.

“We know there will be impacts” throughout the agency, everything is in a state of “flux,” and “what we say today, tomorrow may not be appropriate because we’ve learned something new.”

Another high priority is the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, being readied for a July launch from Kennedy Space Center (KSC).  Lori Glaze, the head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, expressed optimism yesterday that the launch date will be met even if KSC goes to Stage 4, but Zurbuchen’s message today again was the safety of the people working on it is paramount.  They are “doing, frankly, heroes’ work to keep us on track for July.”   Many of them are from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, where the rover was built.  Zurbuchen said he has made it clear to JPL Director Michael Watkins that if at any point the team feels it is no longer safe to stay there, “even with tremendous heartache” the work will be suspended.

If the probe is not ready by July, it cannot be launched for another 26 months when Earth and Mars are once again properly aligned.

Zurbuchen also had a message for students.  This situation should not be “a fork in the road” for anyone’s career and the agency will stand up to its commitments to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.

“Please do not worry about this. We’re all together on this and committed to coming out the other side as a stronger community and one that is not leaving out our friends that we really need to lead in the future.”

For now, though, “all of our missions are affected by” COVID-19 and for “most of the missions, there’s nobody working hands-on anymore in NASA facilities.”  There are a few, like JWST and Mars 2020, they are trying to move forward while “balancing the risks to both program and individuals.”

Work is taking place on many other missions, just not hands-on.  Missions in the early design phase will be least affected because much of that work can be performed via telework. Those already in operation are still sending down data.  It is those in the middle, where hands-on work is required, that will be most impacted.

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