House Hearing Gives JWST Lots Of Love, But Tough Love for Northrop Grumman

House Hearing Gives JWST Lots Of Love, But Tough Love for Northrop Grumman

A two-day House hearing left no doubt that committee members are eager to reauthorize NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) despite a new round of cost overruns and schedule delays. NASA escaped serious criticism perhaps in deference to its new Administrator who has been on the job for only three months (and is a former member of the committee).  The strongest rebukes were directed at the telescope’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman (NG) and its Chairman and CEO agreed to set aside the profits the company was expected to earn on the project until JWST is operating.

JWST is the successor to the highly popular Hubble Space Telescope and the lure of more exciting astronomical discoveries appears to be immunizing it from cancellation. That and the more than $7 billion already spent on building the spacecraft and its suite of instruments.  As NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine phrases it, “we’re on the 5-yard line and trying to punch into the end zone.”

The program has a trouble-plagued history dating back as far as 1996.  At the opening of the July 25-26 hearings, House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) displayed a chart showing that by his calculation JWST now is 19 times its original cost with a 14-year launch delay.

Source: Opening statement of Rep. Lamar Smith for July 25, 2018 hearing on James Webb Space Telescope: Program Breach and Its Implications.

JWST underwent an independent review and rebaselining in 2010-2011. At that time, NASA said it would cost $8 billion for development with launch in October 2018.  Congress set the $8 billion as a cost cap in law.

The spacecraft and the instrument suite now are completed, but NG has been encountering problems during the Integration and Testing (I & T) phase that began last year.  In March 2018, NASA established another Independent Review Board (IRB), chaired by Tom Young, a veteran of NASA and industry who often chairs reviews of government space programs that run into trouble.  In its May 2018 report, publicly released last month, the IRB spelled out what went wrong in this case and what needs to be done to ensure that the telescope works correctly once it is launched.  Young stresses repeatedly that at this point in the program all that matters is mission success.

That will take more time and money.  Following the IRB review, NASA re-estimated the development cost.  It grew by 10 percent to $8.803 billion, breaching the cost cap.  (The lifecycle cost, including commissioning and operations for 5 years, now is $9.663 billion instead of $8.835 billion.  Launch is being provided at no cost to NASA by the European Space Agency, a partner in the program.)

Consequently, Congress must reauthorize the project and appropriate the additional money if JWST is to proceed.

The House SS&T hearings are the beginning of that process.  Young and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified on July 25.  Young returned on July 26 to testify along with NG Chairman and CEO Wesley Bush.  Bush has announced that he will step down as CEO on January 1, 2019 and as Chairman on July 1, 2019.

All three witnesses insisted that it will be money well spent and JWST is “worth the wait.” It was clear that the committee members agreed.  The key questions were who should be held accountable and what the impact will be on other NASA science projects.

Smith asserted that usually no one is held accountable when government contractors make mistakes but “in every case, the American people pick up the bill.”  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) admonished Bush:  “Is the Jim Webb telescope going to be worth all that money?  That’s not what the question is. The question is, is it worth all those other projects that we have been unable to fund … because you have failed your job.”

Bridenstine conceded overruns can force NASA to “cannibalize” other projects and affect the balanced portfolio of small, medium and large astrophysics projects NASA is pursuing.  In fact, he proposed delaying the next in the series, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), until “after we move forward with JWST.  It is true that we can do some development now, I’m not saying we should shut down WFIRST,” but the key is to follow the recommendations of the Decadal Surveys, which presumed JWST would be operating before WFIRST.

NASA’s science programs are guided by Decadal Surveys issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine every 10 years (a decade).  JWST was the top priority for a flagship space telescope in the 2001 Decadal Survey.  WFIRST the top space priority in the 2011 Decadal Survey.  That report came out just when JWST’s cost was ballooning because of earlier overruns.  Money that would have been spent on WFIRST was reallocated to JWST.  WFIRST finally got off to a slow start, but the Trump Administration proposed cancelling it in the FY2019 budget request.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees rejected that proposal, but the two recommended very different levels of funding for WFIRST.  Neither chamber has passed the appropriations bill yet and the need for more JWST money could impact the outcome although Bridenstine said no additional funds are needed in FY2019.  Funds to cover the $800 million overrun will begin with the FY2020 budget request.

Smith asked Bush whether NG should pay for the overrun.

The IRB pointed to “human errors” at the company as the top reason for the overrun.  Two oft-cited examples involve the spacecraft’s thrusters and its sunshield.   Technicians used the wrong solvent to clean valves on the thrusters, ruining them.  They had to be returned to the manufacturer and refurbished, a process that took 9 months. The sunshield will protect the telescope’s instruments from the Sun’s radiation, which would interfere with observations of the universe in the infrared bands.  It is about the size of a tennis court and must be folded to fit inside the rocket’s fairing for launch and then deployed once it is in space. During shock and acoustic tests simulating the launch environment, more than 70 fasteners fell off.

Artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope with the multilayered sunshield shown at the bottom. Credit: NASA

Bush said the company would not pay the additional costs because it has a cost, not a fixed price, contract with NASA.  Under fixed price contracts, contractors assume the risk that the final cost may exceed the agreed-upon price and must absorb any overrun.  In cost contracts, the customer assumes the risk.  It pays whatever the final cost is no matter what that turns out to be.  The NG-NASA contract is cost-plus-award-fee where the contractor also earns award fees — profit — at various intervals.  The amount of the award fee is determined by the customer, in this case NASA, based on the contractor’s performance.

Bridenstine said that because of all the problems on JWST the award fees for NG are not as good as they otherwise would have been and currently the company is not getting any.  Future award fees totaling $60 million could come during the commissioning process after the telescope is launched, he added, “but we’ve taken off $28 million” of that amount already and the contract allows the government to “claw back” previously earned fees.

Young proposed at the first day’s hearing that “all available fees that currently exist” be put together “in one lump sum” and the “criteria for getting them [would be] the quantity and quality of data returned from JWST after it’s on orbit.  I would turn every dollar yet to be awarded into award fee.”

The next day, Bush agreed.  “We are willing to place all of the fee that we’ve already earned and the fee that we may earn in the future at risk based on successful activation and demonstration of the telescope on orbit.”

With launch now expected in March 2021 followed by several months of deployment and commissioning, that means the money would be held in abeyance for at least four years.

And that assumes the launch will, in fact, take place in March 2021.  When briefing the IRB report to the media in June, Young characterized that launch date as having an 80 percent probability of success, and only if NASA and NG fully implement the IRB’s 32 recommendations.

Even then, risks will remain.  Young’s blunt message at the hearings was that space is a “one strike and you’re out business.”

Unlike Hubble, which is in Earth orbit and could be serviced by astronauts on the space shuttle, JWST will be at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point a million miles from Earth.  Once it is launched, there is no way to fix it.

“The JWST complexity and risk cannot be overstated,” Young said in his written statement.  “The IRB recommended March, 2021 launch date assumes the successful implementation of the recommendations in our report.  No allowance has been made for:

  • Additional I & T errors or imbedded [sic] problems with multi-month impacts.
  • Additional sunshield deployments during I & T beyond the currently planned two.
  • Removal of a spacecraft subsystem or science instrument.”

Despite those warnings, Young added that the IRB was “unanimous” in recommending that JWST proceed because of its “extraordinary scientific potential and critical role in maintaining U.S. leadership in astronomy and astrophysics.”

On that point, there was no disagreement.

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