NASA Evaluating JWST Independent Review Report

NASA Evaluating JWST Independent Review Report

NASA is in the process of evaluating the report from the Independent Review Board chaired by Tom Young to assess the status of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  Established in March, the Board was due to submit its report on May 31.  NASA said today that the Board has completed its work and briefed NASA.  The report will be released later this month after NASA determines the impact on cost and schedule.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, created the Webb Independent Review Board (WIRB) on March 27, the same day he announced another delay in the telescope’s launch.  WIRB held its first meeting the next week.

For many years, JWST appeared to be on track for launch in October 2018 after a 2011 restructuring that followed a series of earlier cost overruns and schedule delays.  Congress capped the development cost (not operations) at $8 billion in law.  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.

Last September, the October 2018 launch date slipped to sometime in the March-June 2019 period because of integration problems at the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.  Then on March 27, Zurbuchen and his deputy, Dennis Andrucyk, said the launch would be no earlier than May 2020 because of “avoidable errors” by Northrop Grumman during assembly and testing.

Zurbuchen and other NASA officials have insisted they would not know if the development cost will exceed the $8 billion cap until they have the results of the WIRB analysis.  In a statement today, NASA said it will set a new launch date after evaluating WIRB’s analysis and that will lead to a new cost estimate.

NASA’s Independent Review Board (IRB) for the agency’s James Webb Space Telescope has completed its assessment of the observatory’s remaining critical tasks and briefed NASA officials. The agency is now evaluating the IRB’s findings and recommendations and will define the new launch schedule by the end of June. After the launch date is established, NASA will be able to provide a new cost estimate. NASA also is evaluating post-acoustic test results and will factor them into its schedule decision. — NASA, June 4, 2018

The “post-acoustic test results” in the last sentence refers to another problem that arose last month.  Routine shock separation and acoustic tests designed to ensure the telescope can survive the stresses of launch resulted in fasteners that hold parts of the spacecraft together coming loose.

During a Town Hall meeting at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Denver today, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz presented a slide indicating that the WIRB report and NASA’s response will be released “in late June.”


WIRB is chaired by Tom Young, a former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who was President of Martin Marietta when it merged with Lockheed Martin.  He is frequently called upon to chair failure review boards and other analyses of civil and military space programs that go awry.  The other members are:

  • 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


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