JWST Independent Review Board Gets Down to Work

JWST Independent Review Board Gets Down to Work

The Independent Review Board (IRB) chaired by Tom Young to provide NASA with an outside assessment of the status of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) held its first meeting this week at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.  The 10-member panel will spend the next eight weeks evaluating the program to help NASA determine if JWST can meet its most recently revised launch schedule of May 2020.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen announced formation of the IRB on March 27 when they revealed another delay to the launch of the $8 billion space telescope.

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

JWST is the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, but will study the universe primarily in infrared rather than visible wavelengths.  It will be able to look back further in time than Hubble to find the earliest galaxies and look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today. It will be placed into an orbit 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth, rather than in Earth orbit.  Unlike Hubble, it is not designed to be serviced by astronauts. After it launches into space, it either will work, or not. It is a cooperative program with the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA).  ESA is providing the launch on an Ariane rocket at no cost to NASA as part of the agreement.

JWST has experienced many cost overruns and schedule delays over its history.  The program was restructured in 2011 following an earlier independent review followed an internal NASA review and a new cost and schedule baseline was established: $8 billion for development (plus $837 million for operations) with launch in October 2018.  Congress, which had demanded the independent review, set $8 billion as the cost cap for development in law, which it has repeated every year in NASA’s annual appropriations bill.  NASA cannot exceed that cap without additional congressional approval.

The rebaselined program included 14 months of schedule reserve and cost reserves to deal with “unknown unknowns” that are routinely experienced in development programs like this.  JWST held to the 2011 baseline until last year when NASA had to delay the launch to March-June 2019 because of integration problems at the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.  NASA was confident that the schedule delay could be accommodated within the remaining cost reserves so although JWST’s schedule slipped again, it still would not breach the $8 billion development cap.

That changed on March 27, however. Based on an assessment by JWST’s Standing Review Board, Lightfoot and Zurbuchen announced that the launch would be delayed until at least May 2020 because of a series of “avoidable errors” on Northrop Grumman’s part during testing and integration of the spacecraft.  They said they do not know the cost implications of the delay and whether the cap will be breached.  Lightfoot disclosed that NASA has spent $7.3 billion so far.  They established the IRB to take a close look at the program and provide an independent assessment of where it stands.  NASA will send a report to Congress in June based on the SRB and IRB inputs and its conclusions regarding any additional funding that may be required.  Pursuant to the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, if a program exceeds 30 percent of its baseline estimated cost, NASA must notify Congress and no money may be spent on it after 18 months from the time of that notification unless Congress reauthorizes it.

At the March 27 briefing, NASA outlined personnel and organizational changes it was making immediately to ensure that high level attention is paid to the program at NASA and Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman is executing the JWST program under a “cost-plus” contract that includes receiving periodic “award fees” from NASA.  The amount of the award fee is based on NASA’s assessment of Northrop Grumman’s performance.

SpacePolicyOnline.com asked NASA whether it has reduced the amount of any of the award fees because of the Northrop Grumman “avoidable errors” cited in the March 27 briefing.  NASA replied that contractually it cannot disclose specific information about the award fees, but it did provide this statement:

“Recent performance issues have been factored into NASA’s assessment of Northrop’s award fees. Assessments continue until launch and successful deployment when a final fee is determined.” — NASA statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com regarding award fees to Northrop Grumman for the JWST contract, April 3, 2018.

Meanwhile, the IRB held it first meeting this week at NASA Headquarters.  NASA released the names of the panel members today.

  • Mr. Thomas Young, NASA/Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Maryland – Retired (Chair)
  • Dr. William Ballhaus, Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California- Retired
  • Mr. Steve Battel, Battel Engineering, Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Mr. Orlando Figueroa, NASA Headquarters and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland – Retired
  • Dr. Fiona Harrison, Caltech University in Pasadena, California
  • Ms. Michele King, NASA Office of Chief Financial Officer/Strategic Investments Division in Washington, DC
  • Mr. Paul McConnaughey, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center/Webb Standing Review Board (Chair) in Huntsville, Alabama
  • Ms. Dorothy Perkins, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland – Retired
  • Mr. Pete Theisinger, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California
  • Dr. Maria Zuber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA (far left) and Tom Young (center) testify to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on NASA’s space telescope programs, Dec. 6, 2017. Screengrab

It is an illustrious group of individuals with extensive experience in managing space projects and participating in review boards when projects go awry.  Several are members of the National Academy of Engineering or the National Academy of Sciences and serve on their boards and committees. Young is a former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and President of Martin Marietta who is often called upon to lead failure review boards and independent reviews of troubled programs.  Harrison, a Caltech astrophysicist, is currently chair of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board.  She, Battel and Young were all members of the steering committee of the most recent Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, and she chaired a 2013 National Academies review of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).  Figueroa had a long career in NASA’s space science program and recently co-chaired an independent review of WFIRST.  WFIRST will be the successor to JWST if it proceeds.  President Trump has proposed cancelling it.

Zurbuchen said today that the IRB’s input “will provide a higher level of confidence in the estimated time needed to successfully complete the highly complex tasks ahead before NASA defines a specific launch time frame.”

Today’s statement did not indicate if the IRB’s report will be made public.  It says only that the IRB will present its findings and recommendations to NASA.  NASA will review them and provide its assessment to Congress on what is needed by the end of June.

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