NASA Says Webb Telescope Within Budget and On Track for 2018 Launch, GAO Not So Sure

Artist’s concept of the  James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Image Credit: NASA/ESA

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Image Credit: NASA/ESA

The most sophisticated and ambitious space-based observatory ever conceived by the human mind continues to take shape through various aerospace centers across the country, where work is progressing steadily with development of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This year is a big year for the JWST program: Assembly of the actual flight telescope will begin this year, with its structure arriving at Goddard Space Flight Center this summer, followed by installation of the telescope’s 18 gold-coated hexagonal flight mirrors throughout the rest of the year.

The spacecraft bus and sunshield continue to be put together at Northrop-Grumman in California as well, and testing of test equipment at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in preparation for testing of the integrated telescope and instrument module in 2017 will take place throughout the year. However, some of the most difficult days for the JWST program lie ahead.

The JWST Pathfinder, or test backplane, with secondary mirror boom extended, is readied for cryo tests in NASA Johnson's giant Chamber A. Photo Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The JWST Pathfinder, or test backplane, with secondary mirror boom extended, is readied for cryo tests in NASA Johnson’s giant Chamber A. Photo Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The JWST has had its share of problems over the years, with the most obvious being its ever-increasing price tag, which was originally estimated at $1-3 billion. As of 2015, the cost is closer to $9 billion, and when it comes time to launch the JWST will already be many years behind its originally intended launch date of 2011.

The House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science moved to kill the JWST all together in 2011, citing numerous delays, cost overruns, and poor management, but Congress reversed the cancellation plans and instead capped additional funding at $8.8 billion—four times more expensive than originally proposed—with a new launch date at least seven years later than originally planned. And so, the JWST continues to become reality.

“This next great space observatory, and indeed the world’s most powerful planned space telescope, remains within budget and on track to meet its October 2018 launch readiness date,” said Dr. John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator and veteran astronaut, in comments made to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space on March 24 discussing the status of the JWST program.

A joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the JWST—NASA’s successor to the Hubble—will have been in planning, design, and development for over 20 years when it is finally launched atop an Ariane-5 rocket from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex at the European Spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana.

“Since replanning the program nearly 4 years ago, Webb has remained within its yearly budgets. Critical to the replan is that the budget included adequate funding reserves in each year, enabling the project to address design, manufacturing, or integration issues as they arise without deferring significant work,” noted Grunsfeld. “The project has done an excellent job of managing its budget reserves, and this ability to efficiently address problems as they come up has enabled Webb to remain on schedule for its 2018 launch. The Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget request needed to fund Webb is the same amount defined in the profile that came out of the 2011 rebaseline activity, another indicator that the plan is sound.”

“In nearly 4 years, funded schedule reserve has been reduced from the replan total by only 3 months; so that as of today, we have 10 months of funded schedule reserve,” added Grunsfeld. “This is a good position to be in as we approach our major integration activities. In fact, we have more schedule reserve today than we had planned to have at this stage and more than is customary for NASA missions at this stage.”

NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six of eighteen flight ready James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror segments are prepped to begin final cryogenic testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Photo Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six of 18 flight ready James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror segments are prepped to begin final cryogenic testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Photo Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), who has reviewed JWST for the last three years as part of an annual mandate—and for the last seven years as part of another annual mandate to review all of NASA’s major projects—stressed caution, stating that the JWST faces increased schedule risk with significant work remaining.

“JWST has begun integration and testing for only two of five elements and major subsystems,” said Cristina Chaplain, Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management for the GAO. “While the project has been able to reorganize work when necessary to mitigate schedule slips thus far, this flexibility will diminish as work during integration and testing tends to be more serial, as initiating work is often dependent on the successful and timely completion of the prior work.”

A full-scale JWST sunshield membrane deployed on the membrane test fixture, ready for a precise measurement of its three dimensional shape. The JWST sunshield comprises five of these layers, each of which has to be precisely spaced with respect to the next. Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

A full-scale JWST sunshield membrane deployed on the membrane test fixture, ready for a precise measurement of its three dimensional shape. The JWST sunshield comprises five of these layers, each of which has to be precisely spaced with respect to the next. Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

“Since 2012, we have reported annually that JWST is on track with respect to its new cost and schedule goals, but have raised questions about the reliability of the project’s estimates,” added Chaplain. “The project is now entering a difficult phase of development— integration and testing—which is expected to take another 3.5 years to complete. Maintaining as much schedule reserve as possible is critical during this phase to resolve known risks and unknown problems that may be discovered. Being one of the most complex projects in NASA’s history, significant risks lie ahead for the project, as it is during integration and testing where problems are likely to be found and as a result, schedules tend to slip.”

“Schedule risk is increasing for the project because it has lost schedule reserve across all elements and major subsystems,” noted Chaplain. “As a result, all were within weeks of becoming the critical path of the project and driving the project’s overall schedule. The proximity of all the elements and major subsystem schedules to the critical path means that a delay on any of the elements or major subsystems may reduce the overall project schedule reserve further, which could put the overall project schedule at risk. As a result, the project has less flexibility to choose which issues to mitigate.”

Whether or not the JWST stays on schedule remains to be seen, but if NASA and the GAO can agree on one thing, it is so far so good (although the GAO will always say it could be better). NASA remains on-track and within its budget for the JWST, but there is less and less room for error—in a program that has been plagued by problems—as time goes on if the space agency hopes to launch JWST in 2018.

Once completely assembled, the JWST—with its 69.5 ft x 46.5 ft instruments-protecting sunshield deployed—will be the size of a Boeing 737 airplane. Hubble, in comparison, is about the size of a large tractor-trailer truck or bus. Webb’s 6.5-meter diameter primary mirror will also be bigger, much bigger. The telescope will have nearly seven times more light collecting area than Hubble, allowing for unprecedented infrared observations of distant objects from the dawn of the Universe some 14 billion years ago. Its mirror and instruments will capture images of the Universe and break down the spectra of incoming light to analyze the properties of galaxies, stars, and the atmospheres of planets beyond our Solar System.

Dr. Grunsfeld’s full testimony can be read in full HERE.

GAO Cristina Chaplain testimony can be read in full HERE.

 

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