JWST Arrives in Kourou as COVID Drives Up Cost of Its Successor

JWST Arrives in Kourou as COVID Drives Up Cost of Its Successor

The $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has safely arrived at its launch site in South America after a 16-day journey at sea from California through the Panama Canal. Years late and billions over budget, NASA does not want to repeat JWST’s history on its next flagship astrophysics mission, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, but the COVID-19 pandemic just added $382 million to its price tag.

JWST’s launch is scheduled for December 18, 2021. A joint project among NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), ESA is providing the launch at no cost to NASA on an Ariane 5 rocket. The French company Arianespace launches Ariane from Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST and the spacecraft and its scientific instruments were integrated together and tested at the company’s facility in Redondo Beach, CA. For security reasons, NASA provided little advance information about exactly when it would be shipped. After the fact, it revealed that on September 24 the telescope, safely packed in a shipping container, got a police escort for the first 26 miles of its journey through the streets of Los Angeles to Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. There it was loaded onto the MN Colibri, a French-flagged cargo ship, and departed on September 26. It entered the Panama Canal on October 5 and arrived at Kourou in October 12.

The voyage across the Earth’s oceans is just the beginning. It still must sail the ocean of space to reach its operational location one million miles away at the Sun-Earth L2 (SEL-2) Lagrange point. First it needs a successful launch, then two weeks of a nail-biting deployment sequence while it unfolds itself.

JWST will observe the universe in the infrared. Many refer to it as a follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope although Hubble observes mainly in the visible wavelengths. Another big difference is that Hubble is in Earth orbit and was serviced by five space shuttle crews who replaced most of its working parts, enabling it to continue operations to this day, more than 30 years after launch.

JWST is not designed to be serviced. Its design life is five years, but NASA hopes it will operate for twice that long.

JWST has had a troubled history over two decades, with repeated schedule delays and cost overruns. After a major replan was required in 2011, Congress imposed an $8 billion cost cap for development, but that was breached in 2018, rising to $8.8 billion. The lifecycle cost, including commissioning and operations for five years, now is $9.663 billion. That does not include launch or other costs borne by ESA and CSA.

The project has continued to win support from Congress and successive administrations because of its scientific potential. JWST will be able to look back further in time than any prior telescope, almost to the beginning of the universe.

Thomas Zurbuchen speaking at the Embassy of France, Washington, DC, September 10, 2021. Screengrab.

In a recent talk hosted by the Embassy of France in Washington, D.C., Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, likened it to filling in gaps in a family photo album. Studies of cosmic background radiation reveal the universe just after the Big Bang. Images from Hubble and data from other telescopes that observe in x-ray and other wavelengths, tell the story of later times. What’s missing are the “childhood” years. That is the gap JWST will fill.

There’s a gap in our story book.  Imagine, you look at the album of a child. You see the birth image. Background radiation, right, so we have Nobel Prizes there. And there’s like so many pages missing. And then we see the Hubble images and we see X-rays and we see, you know — that chapter there, the early chapter, the childhood chapter of our universe, is something we’re going to fill in. — Thomas Zurbuchen

JWST won’t answer all the questions, though, and its successor is already in development. Once called the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), it is now the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope named in honor of NASA’s first chief astronomer and the “mother” of Hubble.  It also will observe the universe in infrared, but with a wider field of view.

Everyone is determined to avoid JWST’s delays and overruns this time, but the COVID pandemic is not helping.

Like Hubble and JWST, Roman was recommended by the astrophysics community in a Decadal Survey conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Academies perform Decadal Surveys for all of NASA’s science disciplines every ten years — a decade — and NASA generally follows their recommendations.

A lot of changes can take place in a project’s design between what the Decadal Survey recommends and what actually gets built, however. That certainly is true of Roman. The 2010 astrophysics Decadal Survey recommended a modest mission by flagship standards. The cost was estimated at $1.6 billion, but started growing when the design changed to accommodate a mirror gifted to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and again when NASA decided to add a coronagraph. In 2017, Zurbuchen directed that the project be downscoped to stay within a $3.2 billion envelope and it hit that mark when it passed its confirmation review in March 2020. That is the point where NASA commits to schedule and cost, but the $3.2 billion did not include the coronagraph or operations. Adding those costs yielded a lifetime cost of $3.934 billion.

A NASA spokesperson said in a statement today that the cost now has grown by $382 million because of COVID-19, raising the lifetime cost to $4.3 billion. The launch has slipped to May 2027.

“NASA has completed an independently verified replan for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope due to significant impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Roman is now slated to launch no later than May 2027. NASA will accommodate the estimated cost of this replan at an additional $382 million over the life of the project, bringing the total lifecycle cost to $4.3 billion.” — NASA spokesperson

Paul Hertz, the head of NASA’s astrophysics division, told the Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics in March that COVID hit at “exactly the worst possible time” as the mission entered Phase C, final design and fabrication, with the “maximum number of contractors, subcontractors and suppliers working on providing all the various kinds of hardware” amidst supply chain disruptions and reduced efficiency.

The project just completed another milestone, however, passing its Critical Design Review on September 29. It is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA is providing the coronagraph. Ball Aerospace, L3Harris Technologies, and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging are the primary industry partners.

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.