Zurbuchen: JWST Will Not Launch in March 2021

Zurbuchen: JWST Will Not Launch in March 2021

The much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope will miss its latest launch date, March 2021, but not because of mismanagement. This time the culprit is the coronavirus pandemic. The head of NASA’s science program said definitively today it will not launch in March, but he is optimistic it will sometime next year.  He had better news about NASA’s other top priority science mission, Mars Perseverance. That remains on track for launch next month despite a slight delay that pushes the first opportunity to July 20 — coincidentally the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

Thomas Zurbuchen told the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that a March 2021 launch of JWST is “not in the cards.”

March 2021 was established as the launch date in 2018 after the latest in a long series of cost overruns and schedule delays that have plagued the program from its beginning.  A follow-on to the popular Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is expected to produce scientific results that are just as amazing.  As NASA and JWST’s prime contractor Northrop Grumman revealed the grim news of more delays and costs increases in 2018, the mantra became JWST is “worth the wait.”

Zurbuchen praised the JWST team today saying it had “executed every one of its tasks” since 2018 — until the pandemic intervened. “When we shut down, we shut down an excellent team.”  But time has been lost and that means another delay.

“We will not launch in March, absolutely will not launch in March. That is not in the cards right now. It’s not because they did anything wrong. It’s just not going to be in the cards, and it’s not a fault, or mismanagement of some type.”

The program is slowly getting back on track and a schedule assessment next month will determine the path forward.

“I’m very optimistic of this thing getting off the launch pad in ’21 … because of the results I’m seeing. [But] there still is a lot of mountain to climb.”

Indeed, even before the pandemic Zurbuchen was hinting of another delay and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gave it only a “slim chance” of meeting that March 2021 date.

The news is better about Mars Perseverance, once known as Mars 2020.  Work has continued during the pandemic on getting it ready for launch next month. The spacecraft is at Kennedy Space Center, FL for final integration.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine estimated it would cost $500 million if it misses its July-August launch window, hence the urgency to continue work.  Mars missions can be launched only every 26 months when the planets are correctly aligned, so it would have to be put in storage, an expensive proposition for a spacecraft that must be kept absolutely clean to prevent contaminating the Martian surface.

Perseverance’s design is derived from its cousin, Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012.  Perseverance has different experiments, however, including a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity and sample tubes that will be filled with Martian soil for eventual return to Earth as part of a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.  Zurbuchen showed a photo of the sample tubes being integrated into the rover. He said it is now his favorite photo.

Technicians integrating the sample tubes into the Mars Perseverance rover at Kennedy Space Center, FL.

As part of an invigorating presentation of what Perseverance will do, chief engineer Adam Steltzner told the SSB there are 43 of these “hyper sterile” sample tubes and the prime mission calls for filling 20 of them.

The launch window officially opens on July 17, but the launch just slipped three days because of a problem with a crane used by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to lift the rocket onto its transporter.  Perseverance will be launched on one of ULA’s Atlas V rockets.  ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno tweeted that the crane broke, but now is fixed.

Perseverance is the first of three parts of MSR, a joint effort with the European Space Agency.  The full MSR mission involves the future launch of a European “fetch rover” to collect the sample tubes left by Perseverance and transport them to a U.S. Mars Ascent Vehicle that will loft them into orbit around Mars. There they will meet up with a European spacecraft equipped with a U.S. return vehicle for the trip back to Earth.

MSR is a “flagship” mission, the most expensive type because they are on the cutting edge of science and technology.  JWST is another. Flagship missions routinely experience cost overruns and schedule delays to the consternation not only of Executive Branch and congressional overseers, but scientists whose missions are delayed because resources must be reallocated. Responding to a question today, Zurbuchen defended flagship missions generally, but expressed his own frustrations.

NASA needs to do flagships. We need to learn how to do flagships. Frankly, part of being a leader in space means that we need to do things that nobody has ever done before. In astrophysics especially, and also in some of the planetary sciences, but there’s other fields where some of these flagships are the only tools to move things forward. There’s many other tools, by the way. Not everything needs to be a flagship. …

I think generally speaking what the [National] Academy advises for us is the right … way of looking at it, which is a balanced program with various investments, of which flagships are a part. The challenge with flagships has been, and we’re spending a lot of effort and learning on it, is to manage them in a way that they don’t eat the neighborhood. …

For me, there’s no question, though, that a NASA without flagships in these areas, I would just really like to submit, is not a NASA that is consistent with the values that got us to where we are. …

We need to have some flagships, but we need to learn how to do them the best way and certainly stop making the same mistakes over and over. That’s the only thing that really drives me crazy, where I’m really struggling, because I just really feel we don’t step up to that standard.

The pandemic is affecting many of NASA’s science missions. Cost and schedule impacts will have to be determined on a project by project basis, Zurbuchen said.

The biggest effect is on missions in development.  People working on missions in formulation or operations can accomplish most of their work remotely, but hands-on attention is needed for development.

He showed a summary chart of where missions stand right now, stressing that the status changes often and that anything in grey does not mean no work is being done, only that none is being done on-site.

Source: Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, presentation to Space Studies Board, June 10, 2020.

The work-from-home experience has taught NASA a lot, he added, and things will not be the same when workers return.  Many review meetings are working perfectly well on a remote basis and he sees no need to require people to travel around the country to participate in at least some of them, though he acknowledged the strain of staring at a computer hours on end. The gist is that his Science Mission Directorate (SMD) will be flexible with regard to personnel and processes when on-site work resumes.

In the meantime, “I’ve never felt more proud of the team.”

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