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James Webb Space Telescope
An artist’s conception shows the James Webb Space Telescope with its five-layered, foldable sunshield. Issues with the sunshield have contributed to launch delays. (NASA Illustration)

NASA is delaying the scheduled launch of its next flagship observatory, the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, by a year — which may hike its cost so high that Congress will have to OK more money.

Acting agency administrator Robert Lightfoot said that the outlook for additional delays emerged from an internal schedule review, and that a new date for the telescope’s launch on an Ariane 5 rocket would be negotiated with the European Space Agency.

For now, NASA is looking at launch in May 2020, rather than the spring of 2019 as previously planned.

“The project has achieved numerous successful milestones, and in fact, 100 percent of the observatory’s hardware is now complete,” Lightfoot said today during a teleconference. “However, work performance challenges that were brought to light have prompted us to take some action.”

The telescope has been in the works for decades, and cost overruns and schedule delays have accumulated steadily. There’s no talk of canceling the project, but the setbacks announced today are sparking more than the usual soul-searching.

NASA will be adding personnel from Goddard Space Flight Center to monitor the integration and testing of the telescope’s two halves at Northrop Grumman’s facility in California. It’ll also set up an independent review board — chaired by Tom Young, a retired aerospace executive and former NASA official — to ensure that the project will stay on track.

“He’s frankly the most critical person I know, which is why we asked him,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for space science. “Through that view, we get the confidence we need.”

Ensuring that the telescope works right is a tricky business in part because it’s designed to make unprecedented observations in the infrared from a vantage point 1 million miles from Earth. There’ll be no opportunity to service the spacecraft after launch, as there was for the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Simply put, we have one shot to get this right before going into space. You’ve heard this before, and it rings true for Webb, for us: Really, failure is not an option,” Zurbuchen said.

The 6.5-meter (21-foot) telescope should be capable of analyzing the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system and probing the origins of the universe to an extent beyond what Hubble is capable of. It’s considered the highest-priority project for astrophysics, and has generated huge interest among astronomers.

The latest delay will throw an additional twist into the plans being developed for its use. Proposals for the first wave of observations had been due next month, but the managers of the telescope’s science program said that deadline would now be put off until next February at the earliest.

Past missteps

Zurbuchen and his deputy, Dennis Andrucyk, said Webb’s development schedule was thrown off course due to several factors — including longer-than-expected testing requirements, design missteps and avoidable errors:

  • The first test deployment of the telescope’s origami-like sunshield took a month rather than the two weeks that were budgeted. Folding and stowing the sunshield took two months, twice as long as expected. “We have two additional of those ‘deploy, fold and stow’ operations to go,” Andrucyk said.
  • There was so much slack in the cables used for deploying the sunshield that they posed a snagging hazard, requiring the cable system to be redesigned.
  • Several tears, up to 4 inches long, developed in the five-layer sunshield and had to be repaired.
  • A transducer was set to an incorrect power level during a test, requiring a replacement operation that took three months.
  • Improper solvents were run through the telescope’s propulsion system, which led to the replacement of contaminated valves and damaged seals.
  • A catalyst bed heater was accidentally overstressed and needed to be replaced.

“In developing a very complex system, those kinds of things do happen,” Andrucyk said.

Those kinds of things have been happening for years, to such an extent that Congress set an $8 billion cost cap for the telescope’s formulation and development in 2011. (Another $837 million is being set aside for post-launch operations.)

Last month, the Government Accountability Office reported that the project’s launch was likely to be delayed, putting it at risk of exceeding the cap. NASA officials aren’t yet going so far as to confirm that’ll be the case, but they acknowledge it’s likely.

What’s next?

A revised budget estimate will be part of a report to be sent to Congress in late June. At this point the James Webb Space Telescope is probably “too big to fail,” but NASA could well face sharp congressional criticism over the coming round of overruns.

During a House hearing last December, Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas., took NASA officials to task for the cost issues surrounding Webb and a future telescope project known as WFIRST.

“Much better program management and discipline are required to ensure this does not continue to occur,” he said at the time.

Today, Zurbuchen said NASA intends to change its procedure for planning and executing big science projects, including a discussion over whether to change the schedule of the astronomy community’s Decadal Survey and a more realistic approach to front-end technology development.

“We’re not going to be in a situation that we are in Webb, in which there’s 10 miracles required,” he said.

Update for 4:55 p.m. PT March 27: The House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent along this statement from Chairman Smith:

“Today’s announcement that the James Webb Space Telescope launch will slip again and likely go over the $8 billion development cost cap is disappointing and unacceptable. Just in December, NASA told the Science Committee that the launch would be delayed from 2018 to 2019, and now the launch is delayed by another year and costs may breach the cap. These continued delays and cost overruns undermine confidence in NASA and its prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.

“NASA must keep their promises to the American taxpayers. Every time a mission is delayed or goes over budget, it negatively affects other science missions. This includes delays, cancellations and de-scoping of other missions. Those effects ripple out within NASA and through the entire scientific community.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is a crucial project and an investment in our future. I expect it to be completed within the cap and launched as close to on schedule as possible so we can look forward to the incredible discoveries it will bring.”

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