JWST Slips Another Year to 2020, Could Breach $8 Billion Cost Cap

JWST Slips Another Year to 2020, Could Breach $8 Billion Cost Cap

NASA announced another slip in the launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) today.  Last fall the date slipped from the long established October 2018 to a period between March and June 2019.  Now it is May 2020 at the earliest.  NASA officials said they do not yet know how much that will add to the cost.  If it exceeds the $8 billion cost cap set in law, it will have to be reauthorized by Congress.

The delay is not a surprise.  Last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its annual review of the program concluding that the March-June 2019 schedule was “likely unachieveable” and put the project “at risk” of breaching the budget cap.

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

JWST has had a long history of cost growth and schedule delays.  The original  cost estimate was $1 billion, but grew from there.  In 2010, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, then chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA,  directed NASA to conduct an independent review.  Led by John Casani , it concluded that project management rather than technical issues was the primary problem.

NASA restructured the project in 2011 and developed a new cost estimate that included robust cost and schedule reserves to respond to unanticipated problems  — “unknown unknowns” — that occur in many technology development programs. The cost estimate was $8 billion, with launch in October 2018.

It held to those parameters until last year when spacecraft integration problems surfaced at the prime contractor, Northop Grumman. The launch was delayed to sometime in the 3-month window between March and June 2019.

The telescope is comprised of two parts: the Optical Telescope and Integrated Science (OTIS) instrument module housing all the scientific equipment, and the spacecraft that provides power, propulsion and other systems, including a “sunshield” to protect the instruments from the Sun. OTIS was built at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and tested there and at Johnson Space Center. The spacecraft was built at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (NGAS) in Redondo Beach, CA.

All the hardware for OTIS and the spacecraft now is completed and together under one roof at NGAS.  The next step is to integrate them into a single unit.  That process and the associated testing is taking much longer than NASA expected even though it built in 14 months of schedule reserve when it reformulated the program in 2011.

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

After announcing the launch delay last year, more problems developed.  NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) head Thomas Zurbuchen ordered an independent review by the project’s Standing Review Board (SRB) of whether JWST could meet the revised launch date or not.

During a media teleconference this morning and a meeting of the National Academies Space Studies Board this afternoon, he gave the answer:  no.

The review concluded that a launch date of May 2020 is possible, with a 70 percent confidence level, meaning even that is not certain.  He said the cost implications of the delay are still being developed.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said during the teleconference that NASA has spent $7.3 billion so far and will inform Congress immediately if the new estimate exceeds the $8 billion cap.

The cap was set in law following the 2011 restructuring and has been included in every NASA appropriations bill since, including the 2018 appropriations bill signed into law last week.  The cap covers development costs only, not operations, which NASA estimates at $837 million.

In a statement, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called today’s announcement “disappointing and unacceptable.”

“Today’s announcement that the James Webb Space Telescope launch will slip again and likely go over the $8 billion development cost cap is disappointing and unacceptable. Just in December, NASA told the Science Committee that the launch would be delayed from 2018 to 2019, and now the launch is delayed by another year and costs may breach the cap. These continued delays and cost overruns undermine confidence in NASA and its prime contractor, Northrop Grumman. …

“The James Webb Space Telescope is a crucial project and an investment in our future. I expect it to be completed within the cap and launched as close to on schedule as possible so we can look forward to the incredible discoveries it will bring.” — Rep. Lamar Smith

Today Zurbuchen and his deputy, Dennis Andrucyk, listed “avoidable errors” that happened during assembly and testing of the spacecraft at NGAS.  They included use of an incorrect solvent that damaged valves in the propulsion system that then had to be refurbished (requiring 9 months), and a propulsion system transducer that was incorrectly powered and damaged (a 3 month delay).  During deploy/fold/stow tests of the sunshield, seven tears developed in the fabric that had to be repaired. Problems with a cable tensioning system led to snags.

Lightfoot said the agency has already discussed the delay with Congress and will send a formal report this summer after they have more information, such as the cost implications. 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.

If more money is needed, Zurbuchen noted that NASA’s future year budget plans include money to operate JWST.  If the spacecraft is not in orbit, those funds could be diverted into development, so the cost increase would not necessarily impact other NASA programs.

Andrucyk laid out NASA’s path forward, which essentially is strengthening oversight by adding more people and reorganizing the management chain at NASA HQ,  NASA/Goddard, and NGAS.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA (far left) and Tom Young (center) testify to House Science, Space and Technology Committee on space telescopes, Dec. 6, 2017. Screengrab.

Zurbuchen also announced that he is establishing an Independent Review Board (IRB), this one external to the agency.  It will be headed by  Tom Young, a highly respected engineer who is a former director of NASA/Goddard and former President of Martin Marietta.  Young is often tapped to chair independent reviews and failure reviews of space programs that go awry.

Zurbuchen said the IRB will focus on the question:  “will this be successful?”  He noted that Young has not been shy about voicing criticism of the program and that is what he wants.  Young is a member of the Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) and posed tough questions at a CAA meeting last fall.  He also was among a panel of witnesses that testified to the House SS&T Committee on December 6, 2017 about NASA’s space telescopes where Zurbuchen announced that he was asking for an independent review of JWST.

At the SSB meeting, Zurbuchen added that Young’s review is due in May 2018. The results of his review and the final report of the SRB will feed into NASA’s report to Congress this summer.  Apparently that is when the agency will formally reveal what the cost overrun will be.

Unlike Hubble, close by in low Earth orbit, JWST will be placed at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, 1.5 milion kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth.  Also unlike Hubble, it is not designed for servicing by astronauts or robotic spacecraft.  Once it leaves Earth, it cannot be fixed.

JWST is a cooperative program among NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  ESA is providing the launch on an Ariane 5 rocket at no cost to NASA as part of its contribution.  Once the spacecraft lifts off from Ariane’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, it will proceed through a complicated deployment sequence enroute to its final destination.  If anything goes awry, the mission will be lost.

NASA and ESA must negotiate a new launch date.  ESA’s Director of Science Gunther Hasinger said in a statement today that “we need to focus on the overall success of the mission … proceeding through the final integration with the additional time necessary.”

NASA is currently designing the follow-on to JWST, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Asked what impact the JWST delays and potential cost overrun might have on WFIRST, Zurbuchen stressed that although they both are space telescopes, the similarities end there.   Cost control for WFIRST “is about scope” while for JWST “it is about executing and implementing new technologies.”

The Trump Administration has proposed terminating WFIRST in the FY2019 budget request. NASA officials insist it is not related to the program’s merit, but the Trump Administration wants to reallocate the $3.2-$3.9 billion it would cost to human spaceflight and smaller astrophysics missions.

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.