Tom Young Hones in on JWST Delay at CAA Meeting

Tom Young Hones in on JWST Delay at CAA Meeting

The National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) was briefed today on the recently announced 6-9 month delay to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  Eric Smith, JWST Program Director at NASA Headquarters, gave a presentation similar to one last week to an internal NASA advisory committee, but this audience — and therefore many of the questions — were different.

At the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC) meeting last week, Smith explained the reasons for the delay and reassured the astrophysics community represented by APAC that his office has enough budget reserves to pay for the additional time needed and other NASA astrophysics programs will not be impacted.  JWST encountered many delays and cost increases in the past that required resources to be shifted away from new astrophysics projects, so there is concern that additional delays might lead to the same result.

The delay is because spacecraft integration at prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (NGAS) is taking longer than planned.  Since a rebaselining of the program in 2011, NASA has been diligently working toward a launch date in October 2018.  That now has slipped to the March-June 2019 time frame.  Many refer to it as a 6-month slip, but that is only if the launch takes place in March.  If it is not until June, that is a 9-month slip.  Smith said at the APAC meeting that it is too early to determine exactly when the launch will take place within that window.

APAC is an internal NASA advisory committee, while CAA is an external group that is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It operates under the aegis of the Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy and its membership is composed not only of astrophysicists, but experts with other backgrounds.

A. Thomas Young testifying to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on “NASA’s Past, Present, and Future,” February 16, 2017. Screengrab.

Among them is Tom Young, a highly respected engineer who spent the early part of his career at NASA and later moved to Martin Marietta, which merged with Lockheed to become Lockheed Martin. During his tenure at NASA, he served as Director of Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), which today is managing the JWST program.  Young has considerable experience not only in managing large space projects, but in chairing review panels trying to discover what went wrong with civil and national security space programs that fail.

At the CAA meeting today, Young pointed out that it is “surprising ” for a delay of this magnitude to be discovered so late in the program, just one year before launch.  He asked if management “dropped the ball.”

Smith said they only recently realized the integration schedule was “pretty optimistic.”  “Should we have caught it earlier, yes. …  We should have been more conservative from the start on the schedule.”

When the program was rebaselined in 2011, the new cost estimate of $8 billion for development included substantial cost and schedule reserves to cover “unknown unknowns.”  The JWST project manager at Goddard controls some of those reserves, while Smith, as the program director at headquarters, controls other portions of the money.  Smith is using the budget reserves he controls to cover the schedule delay.

Young asked how much more delay could be covered by his budget reserves.  Smith replied that he did not want to say publicly how much he has, and that the key is how quickly the workforce at NGAS rolls off.  Because of the spacecraft integration problems, more workers are needed than the budget estimate assumed.

A separate problem that needs to be resolved is with the 16 monopropellant thrusters the spacecraft needs to control pitch, yaw, and roll.  Smith said today that NGAS cleaned the thruster valves with something that damaged them and now they leak.  They will have to be replaced or reworked and options for reattachment are being evaluated.

Smith said last week that NASA will not be able to set a new launch date until contract modifications with NGAS are completed and the thruster problems are resolved.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article incorrectly used the acronym ASAP in one place.  The correct acronym, as used throughout the article, is APAC for NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee.

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