Tuesday, March 27, 2018

NASA’s Webb Observatory Requires "More Time" for Testing: Launch Delayed Until May 2020

         By Chuck Black

It's official. NASA has announced that the beleaguered James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is behind schedule again and will be delayed once more, this time until May 2020.

The program is also likely to breach the $8.8Bln US ($11.31Bln CDN) cost cap, covering design development ($8Bln US) and operations (the remainder), which was imposed on the program by the US Congress after a series of earlier cost overruns in 2011. Breaching the cost cap would mean that Congress might need to reauthorize the program and allocate new funds.

NASA said that it will release a revised cost estimate after a new launch window is determined in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA).

The latest announcement, as outlined in the March 27th, 2018 NASA press release, "NASA's Webb Observatory Requires More Time for Testing and Evaluation; New Launch Window Under Review," blamed problems uncovered during the "final integration and test phases" which will require more time to successfully overcome.

In a conference call held earlier today, which included acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot,
along with the associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate (SMD) Thomas Zurbuchen and SMD deputy associate administrator Dennis Andrucyk, NASA announced that it will be:
... establishing an external Independent Review Board (IRB), chaired by Thomas Young, a highly respected NASA and industry veteran who is often called on to chair advisory committees and analyze organizational and technical issues (to investigate the delays and overruns) 
The IRB findings are supposed to complement data collected through other NASA reviews and
"bolster confidence in NASA’s approach to completing the final integration and test phase of the mission, the launch campaign, commissioning, as well as the entire deployment sequence," according to the press release, 

NASA will then provide its assessment in a report to Congress this summer.

The project has been hemorrhaging cash and slipping further and further behind schedule for most of the last sixteen years:
  • The original JWST contract, as described by the September 11th, 2002 New York Times (NYT) article "Next Generation Space Telescope Chosen to Peer into Past" was originally budgeted at $824.8Mln US ($1.061Bln CDN) and expected to launch in 2010. According to the article, the telescope would have "a segmented main mirror that will unfold to capture many times as much light" as the Hubble Space Telescope, which the JWST was originally designed to "compliment."
  • The first large formal budget increase (after a series of incremental and largely unpublicized increases) was in 2005, following an "independent" review from JWST contractor Northrop Grumman and the NASA science instruments and support (ISIM) team for the JWST. According to the James Webb Space Telescope Project History website (part of the Space Telescope Science Institute), this first major review was a "financial shock" with costs rising from a pre-review estimate of about $2Bln US to $3.5Bln US ($4.5Bln CDN) and with the expected launch date pushed back to "no earlier than June 2013."
  • By 2010 the project had taken up so much of the NASA budget, that it was impacting on other projects. The August 12th, 2010 Spaceflight Now post "NASA says JWST cost crunch impeding new missions" reported that "much of NASA's funding for astrophysics missions is being gobbled up by the James Webb Space Telescope," which is now the "the $5 billion successor to the Hubble Space Telescope." The article went on to state that, although NASA is committed to launching JWST "as close as possible to its June 2014 target" launch date, there will likely be further cost increases. According to the article, "getting JWST launched by June 2014 (the expected launch date at the time), or at least close to that date, will almost certainly require more money than predicted today."

Canada's contributions to the JWST are listed on this March 25th, 2015 Canadian Space Agency (CSA) webpage. Looks like they need to update their launch dates. Graphic c/o CSA

  • The NYT reported on November 10th, 2010 that the "Telescope Is Behind Schedule and Over Budget, Panel Says." According to the post, "the James Webb Space Telescope, which already consumes 40 percent of the astrophysics budget at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will actually end up costing $6.2 billion to $6.8 billion" and was unable to meet its estimated 2015 launch date without further infusions of cash.
  • By 2011, as outlined in the July 12th, 2011 Space.com article "Scientists Condemn Plans to Scrap Hubble Telescope Successor" the JWST was expected to launch sometime in 2018, until the "House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA proposed a 2012 spending bill last week that would terminate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as part of wider-reaching cutbacks that would reset the agency's budget at pre-2008 levels." After much political infighting, the US Congress imposed the $8.8Bln cap on overall JWST costs. 
  • But over the last six months, everything started to fall apart again. The first indication, as outlined in the October 5th, 2017 Astronomy Now post, "JWST launch slips to early 2019," said that:
Extra testing of the James Webb Space Telescope and delays in assembling the powerful observatory will push back the $10 billion mission’s launch by at least six months to early 2019, officials announced last week...
Where this ends is anyone's guess at this point. Just don't expect a reasoned discussion of the cost-plus procurement processes used by NASA to fund the program.

That's the real cause of those endemic JWST and Space Launch System (SLS) cost overruns.

It's also the sort of a discussion would interfere with the take home pay of far too many NASA scientists and engineers.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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