Zurbuchen Will Initiate Independent Review of JWST Schedule

Zurbuchen Will Initiate Independent Review of JWST Schedule

Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of science at NASA, told a congressional committee today that he will initiate an independent review of the status of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in January.  JWST’s schedule recently slipped from October 2018 to March-June 2019.  He said he believes that schedule is achievable, but agreed with Tom Young, another witness at the hearing, that an independent review is needed.

Witnesses at the December 6, 2017 House hearing on NASA’s telescopes. L-R: Thomas Zurbuchen (NASA), Cristina Chaplain (GAO), Thomas Young (retired), Matt Mountain (AURA) and Chris McKee. (UC-Berkeley). Screengrab.

The JWST program suffered significant cost overruns and schedule delays in its early years, but has performed well since a rebaselining and new program management approach was instituted in 2011.  The rebaselining included healthy amounts of cost and schedule reserves and the program seemed on track to meet its launch date of October 2018 within a congressionally-imposed cost cap  of $8 billion for development.  In September, however, NASA announced the launch would slip by 6-9 months because of spacecraft integration challenges experienced by prime contractor Northrop Grumman.  NASA insists that the cost of the delay can be accommodated within the $8 billion cap.

Young is former Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and was President of Martin Marietta at the time of its merger with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin.  Currently retired, he is often called upon to chair committees to determine why civil and national security space programs go awry.  A member of the National Academy of Engineering, he serves on a number of committees of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, including the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA).  At an October CAA meeting, Young honed in on why a delay of so many months could be discovered so late in the program.

At today’s hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Young said the actual launch date and required funding for JWST cannot be determined until a new plan is developed and verified by an independent review.  He stressed that the only criterion that is important at this stage of the program is mission success. “A few extra days or weeks or even months of schedule delay or the expenditure of some additional dollars is a small price to pay to assure success of a mission as important as JWST.”

Later, Zurbuchen was asked by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) whether he believes the March-June 2019 schedule is achievable.  Zurbuchen replied that he does “at this moment in time with the information that I have,” but added that he agrees with Young that an independent review “is exactly what we should be doing and frankly I have directed the team to do just that in January.”

The hearing was on “NASA’s Next Four Large Telescopes,” which also includes the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).  Currently in the formulation phase, WFIRST is already encountering cost growth due in part to NASA’s decision to add a coronagraph to the design.  A recent independent review of WFIRST concluded that the program was not executable as currently formulated. Zurbuchen consequently directed NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the program, to come up with a plan by February to lower the cost.

CAA also was briefed on the WFIRST issues in October.  The coronagraph was cited as a major reason for the cost growth and CAA members questioned whether it really is necessary.  The National Academies sets scientific priorities for NASA through the Decadal Survey process.  It was the most recent astrophysics Decadal Survey in 2010 that chose WFIRST as the top priority for a large space telescope, but it was a modest ($1.6 billion) mission at the time.  NASA has significantly changed the design compared to what the Decadal Survey recommended.  The independent review pegged the cost at $3.9 – $4.2 billion.  While some of that is due to inflation, it is significantly more than planned and scientists are concerned that it will consume too much of the astrophysics budget, preventing other smaller projects from starting.  The Decadal Survey committee stressed the need for balance among small, medium and large missions and data analysis as a core tenet of the astrophysics program.

Young served on the Decadal Survey committee as well as on two subsequent Academies committees in 2014 and 2016 that reviewed progress on WFIRST.

At the hearing today, he observed that WFIRST has been “plagued with continual requirements creep.”  Asked by subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) if imposing a cost cap on WFIRST would instill discipline into the program Young said he is “not a fan of cost caps.”  A “better solution” is what NASA is already doing, he said — understanding the requirements, cost, risk and technical complexity of the mission and adjusting those to what is affordable.  Then they need to be “rigorously” controlled.

The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) Cristina Chaplain also provided advice on how to manage these programs.  She listed four “lessons learned” that should guide NASA in the future:

  • manage cost and schedule performance for large projects to limit implications for the entire portfolio;
  • establish adequate cost and schedule reserves to address risks;
  • regularly and consistently update project Joint Confidence Levels (JCLs) to provide realistic estimates to decision makers; and
  • enhance oversight of contractors to improve project outcomes

JWST and WFIRST were two of the four telescopes the subcommittee had under consideration at the hearing today.  The other two are the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and planning for whatever will come after WFIRST.   TESS actually is not a large telescope by NASA standards.  Its cost is estimated at $337 million compared to more than $3 billion for WFIRST and $8 billion for JWST.

Together, however, the three represent “at least $12.4 billion” in investment Chaplain said, half of NASA’s astrophysics budget, so they must be managed “prudently.”

TESS will search for planets around other stars (exoplanets) and is scheduled for launch in March 2018.  During testing, it was discovered that when exposed to cold temperatures its four cameras are out of focus, but Zurbuchen said project scientists have concluded it can fulfill its mission requirements nonetheless.

Deciding what large telescope should follow WFIRST will be the task of the next Academies astrophysics Decadal Survey in 2020.  Chris McKee, professor emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley, represented the Academies at the hearing today.  He co-chaired the 2001 astrophysics Decadal Survey and is a member of CAA.  He described the Decadal Survey process — they are conducted every 10 years (a decade) for each of NASA’s space and earth science disciplines — which brings together the country’s top scientists to determine the key scientific questions and recommend missions to answer them.

In preparation for the 2020 astrophysics Decadal Survey, NASA is funding four mission concept studies for the Academies committee to consider:  the Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR), the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx),  the Lynx X-ray telescope, and the Origins far-infrared surveyor.

Matt Mountain, President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), was at the hearing today to advocate for LUVOIR.   Zurbuchen briefly described the other three concepts, but emphasized that he will not be the person to choose among them.  “One of the jobs that I don’t have is to prioritize” them, he exclaimed, “and you don’t want me to have that job.”  That is the task of the Decadal Survey committee, which is an objective forum and the answer will not change depending on whoever is heading NASA’s Science Mission Directorate as the years go by.

Our live tweets of the hearing (@SpcPlcyOnline) provide additional detail of the discussion today.


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