Put March 30, 2021, on your calendar. That’s when NASA now plans to launch its much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope.
An independent review board established by the space agency says the new launch date is realistic — as long as no additional problems arise.
If the review board’s recommendations are “rigorously implemented,” then NASA has a “very high probability” of sticking with its revised launch schedule, Tom Young, who chaired the board, said Wednesday.
But it won’t be cheap.
This latest delay will add roughly $837 million to the telescope’s cost, bringing the total price tag for development to $8.8 billion, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
The total life cycle cost, which includes Webb’s first five years of operation, is now set at $9.66 billion, Zurbuchen added.
The new budget exceeds an $8-billion cap that Congress had set for the telescope’s development and construction. NASA has submitted a “breach report” to Congress, which must re-authorize the mission and provide the additional funds in order for it to go forward, said NASA Associate Administrator Stephen Jurczyk.
Webb is seen as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and is NASA’s top science priority. From an orbit about 1 million miles from Earth, it will look way back in time to the origin of the universe in an effort to understand how the galaxies, stars and planets came to be.
It also will search for exoplanets in orbit around other stars that may be hospitable to life and help scientists “answer questions like, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ ” said John Mather, the mission’s senior project scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The telescope has “awesome scientific potential,” said Young, the former director of Goddard Space Flight Center. But it also has “significant complexity.”
Webb was originally scheduled to launch in 2007, but a series of scientific challenges and preventable mistakes have forced multiple delays and budget increases. Most recently, the telescope had been scheduled to launch in May 2020.
Young outlined five factors that have caused delays in Webb’s schedule since 2011:
• Human error. Small mistakes have led to “substantial” added cost and mission delays, according to the report. For instance, workers who intended to clean valves for the telescope’s propulsion system accidentally used the wrong solvent for the job. The cleaning procedure was not clear, and the workers failed to check with the valve manufacturer to make sure the solvent they planned to use would not damage the hardware. It did.
“This is a mistake that really should not have happened,” Young said.
• Embedded problems. These are problems that are not discovered until after the telescope has been built. The damaged valves are one example. Another is the fact that fasteners designed to hold Webb’s sunshield cover in place were incorrectly installed and came loose during late-stage testing. These and other problems should have been uncovered much earlier, when they would have been simpler and cheaper to fix, according to the report.
The review board noted that NASA is taking a closer look at the way its payloads connect with the rockets that launch them. This audit was prompted by the loss of a classified satellite that was built by Northrop Grumman and apparently did not detach as expected from the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to carry it into orbit. A Wall Street Journal report in April said two separate teams of government and industry investigators had “tentatively concluded” that “engineering and testing errors by Northrop Grumman” were responsible for the error. Northrop is the prime contractor for the Webb mission.
• Lack of experience. The James Webb Space Telescope involves many “firsts.” For instance, the telescope’s 21-foot-wide segmented mirror is so large that it must be folded up for launch like a piece of origami paper, then carefully unfurled in space. Mission managers must recognize that these first-time challenges “require special attention,” the review board wrote.
• Systems complexity. Without a doubt, the James Webb Space Telescope “is the most complex space system that NASA [Science Mission Directorate] has ever built,” the board members wrote. That makes the mission inherently risky, and those risks should not be underestimated, they added. In this context, even small problems can lead to “significant delays and cost,” they warned.
• Excessive optimism. NASA should be more realistic about the challenges it is facing, said Young, who noted that the delays are costing NASA about $1 million a day.
The independent review board identified 31 specific areas for improvement, and NASA agreed with all of them.
Some of the board’s recommendations already have begun to be implemented, such as designating an experienced systems engineer to serve as the project’s “commission manager,” implementing a more sustainable work schedule, and empowering workers at Northrop to halt work if something doesn’t seem right.
The 2021 launch date assumes that the recommendations in the report are taken to heart, Young said; there’s no cushion for additional mistakes.
The telescope is being assembled at Northrop’s Space Park facility in Redondo Beach. Asked whether he was upset with Northrop’s handling of the project, Zurbuchen focused on NASA’s role.
“Make no mistake: I’m not happy sitting here having to share this story,” Zurbuchen said. “Of course Northrop is part of this, but we have oversight, and we take responsibility for this.”
For its part, Northrop Grumman said it supported the findings of the review board and was committed to implementing the corrective measures required.
“We recognize that issues we have encountered have impacted the program,” the company said in a statement. “We have put the people, processes and tools in place to be successful and help prevent further issues. We are aggressively addressing process and schedule, but we will not sacrifice quality for schedule. Mission success is our number one priority.”
Zurbuchen emphasized that the James Webb Space Telescope is the most ambitious thing NASA has tried to build, and the team behind it has overcome significant hurdles to get to this point.
“This is the first telescope of its kind,” Zurbuchen said. “It is at the very leading edge of technological innovation.”
“We have to get this right on the ground before we go into space,” he added. “Webb is worth the wait.”