JWST Prime Contractor Northrop Grumman Announces Leadership Transition

JWST Prime Contractor Northrop Grumman Announces Leadership Transition

Northrop Grumman (NG) announced today that its Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Wes Bush will step down in 2019.  He will be replaced by Kathy Warden, currently the company’s President and Chief Operating Officer (COO).  The move comes weeks after NG’s successful acquisition of Orbital ATK.  It also is a time when the company is under scrutiny for its implementation of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), however.  NASA has announced schedule delays and cost overruns for JWST because of “avoidable errors” at the company during JWST integration and testing.

Wes Bush, Chairman and CEO, Northrop Grumman. Credit: Northrop Grumman.

Bush made his start as a systems engineer at TRW, which was acquired by NG in 2002.  He was NG’s COO from 2003-2006, Chief Financial Officer from 2005-2007, and became President in 2006. He was appointed chairman in 2011 and was Chairman, President and CEO in 2017.

Kathy J. Warden, President and COO, and incoming CEO, Northrop Grumman. Credit: Northrop Grumman.

Warden’s background is business administration and she held leadership positions at General Dynamics and Veridian before joining NG in 2008.  She rose through the ranks at NG to become President and COO on January 1, 2018.  She will remain as President and become CEO on January 1, 2019.  Bush will relinquish the CEO title that day, but remain as Chairman until July 1, 2019.  Today’s announcement did not address who will become the new Chairman or if Warden will continue as COO.  It said only that she will be President and CEO as of January 1, 2019.

NG’s $9.2 billion acquisition ($7.8 billion in cash, $1.4 billion in net debt) of Orbital ATK closed on June 6.  It is now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, a fourth NG business unit.  Orbital ATK’s OA-9 Cygnus cargo spacecraft that docked with the International Space Station (ISS) prior to the merger is now the Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft.  It is scheduled to depart ISS on Sunday, release several cubesats, remain in orbit for two weeks to conduct engineering tests, and then reenter on July 30, burning up in the atmosphere as it is designed to do.  Cygnus spacecraft now will carry an “NG” rather than “OA” designation.

NG has extensive experience in building large spacecraft like JWST for the government.  The acquisition of Orbital ATK gives the company a foothold in the small and medium satellite market as well as launch vehicles and ISS cargo services.

The company is the prime contractor for JWST, NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Cost-capped by Congress at $8 billion for development, NASA recently commissioned an independent review of the program after it concluded NG made “avoidable errors” during integration and testing of the spacecraft and its scientific instruments resulting in a significant schedule delay.  For example, technicians used an incorrect solvent that damaged valves on the spacecraft’s thrusters.  They had to be removed and refurbished, a nine-month process.

Two weeks ago, NASA revealed the results of the independent review, chaired by Tom Young.  It concluded that JWST will not be ready for launch at least until March 2021, a 29-month slip from its previous launch date of October 2018.  Consequently, the development cost will grow by 10 percent, from $8.0 billion to $8.803 billion.  (The life-cycle cost, including operations, is now estimated at $9.663 billion instead of $8.835 billion).  Because of the magnitude of the overrun and schedule delay, NASA now is required by law to convince Congress to reauthorize the program and allow it to continue.

Few doubt that Congress will do so considering how much already has been spent, but Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee quickly announced that he will hold a JWST hearing this month.  He said Bush had agreed to testify along with Young and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Whether today’s announcement that Bush is stepping down changes the witness list remains to be seen.  If the goal is to obtain assurances from NG that it will fix the problems going forward, Warden might be a more appropriate NG representative since she soon will be running the company.

Warden is one of several women leading major aerospace companies.  Others include Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President and CEO of Lockheed Martin; Phebe Novakovic, Chairman and CEO of General Dynamics; Eileen Drake, CEO and President of Aerojet Rocketdyne; and Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX.

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