NASA delays James Webb Space Telescope launch to NET May 2020

by Chris Gebhardt

NASA has announced a further delay to the James Webb Space Telescope’s launch.  The agency had been targeting March-June 2019 for the much-heralded telescope’s liftoff.  But continued integration delays have forced the agency to push the launch back a full year to No Earlier Than May 2020.  This slip is the second such delay in the last six months and follows a February 2018 Government Accountability Office report that called the March-June 2019 launch window “optimistic.”

Speaking to reporters via teleconference, NASA’s Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Thomas Zurbuchen, and Deputy Associate Administrator of SMD Dennis Andrucyk provided an update on the ongoing schedule uncertainty for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – the agency’s much heralded follow-on observatory of the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Webb is the highest priority project for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, and the largest international space science project in U.S. history.  All the observatory’s flight hardware is now complete; however, the issues brought to light with the spacecraft element are prompting us to take the necessary steps to refocus our efforts on the completion of this ambitious and complex observatory,” said Mr. Lightfoot.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch NET May 2020. (Credit: NASA)

Mr. Zurbuchen and Mr. Andrucyk added that testing of the telescope’s hardware and spacecraft elements has demonstrated that these systems individually meet their requirements.  However, recent findings this month from the project’s Standing Review Board (SRB) indicate more time is needed to test and integrate these components together and perform environmental testing at Northrop Grumman.

However, NASA did not elaborate on what the issues the SRB found were that led to a year long delay to the mission.  Instead, the agency cited sunshield tears and improper propulsion system cleaning by Northrop Grumman as the primary causes leading to the delay and increase in daily oversight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate over Northrop Grumman.

But both of those issues – sunshield tears and improper thruster cleaning – were known and discussed at length in last month’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on James Webb, a report that said even with those known issues there was still 1.5 months of schedule reserve left to meet the March-June 2019 launch window.

Regardless, the new year-long delay has prompted NASA to establish an external Independent Review Board (IRB) that will be chaired by Thomas Young.  The IRB’s findings, are expected to 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.

Both boards’ findings and recommendations, as well as the project’s input, will be considered by NASA as it defines a more specific launch date.  During the media teleconference, NASA admitted that there was currently only a 70% confidence level that JWST will be ready in time for its now May 2020 launch target.

Moreover, the project is now in jeopardy of breaching its $8 billion (USD) pre-launch cost cap.  If that cap is reached, NASA will have to go to Congress for authorization of more funding and a detailed explanation of why the project needs to breach its cost cap.

NASA indicated during the teleconference that they will brief Congress in late-June regardless of if the mission will exceed its cost cap.

The delays and issues faced during Webb’s integration are not necessarily unexpected for a project of its magnitude, but they are certainly more worrisome for NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and CSA (Canadian Space Agency) as JWST, once launched, is not serviceable like Hubble – meaning any issues missed pre-launch cannot be fixed by a human or robotic servicing mission.

Background: Issues with James Webb Space Telescope:

JWST has faced some difficulties during development and construction.  Just last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned of the dangers of additional slips beyond the telescope’s then launch target of March-June 2019 due to ongoing issues with integration and testing operations and prime contractor [Northrop Grumman] optimism.

The report was particularly scathing toward Northrop Grumman, highlighting the company’s work on JWST as the project’s critical path toward being able to launch at the end of the window in June 2019 as well as Northrop’s continued “optimism” for schedules and underestimation of time needed to complete work.

Then-schedule as of 28 February 2018 for the James Webb Space Telescope’s processing timeline for launch. Credit: GAO/NASA

Moreover, the GAO identified five specific areas that posed threats to the March-June 2019 launch schedule, including:

  • “resolving lingering technical issues from the OTIS (Optical Telescope & Integrated Science Instrument Module) cryovacuum test and preparing and shipping of OTIS to the Northrop Grumman facility in California for integration with the spacecraft,
  • Completing integration of spacecraft hardware, and conducting spacecraft element environmental tests and remaining deployments of the spacecraft and sunshield – activities which, to date, have taken considerably longer than planned,
  • Integrating the completed OTIS element with the spacecraft element and testing the full observatory in the fifth and final integration phase, which includes another set of challenging environmental tests,
  • Mitigating approximately 47 remaining tracked hardware and software risks to acceptable levels and continuing to address the project’s 300+ potential single point failures to the extent possible, and
  • Preparing and shipping the observatory to the launch site and completing final launch site processing, including installation of critical release mechanisms.”

As a result, the GAO warned that JWST was at risk of exceeding its $8 billion formulation and development cost cap prior to launch.

Before the announced slip last year to March-June 2019, JWST had been slated to launch in October 2018 – a date itself that was 11 years after the originally planned launch target of 2007 when the project was first conceived in 1997.

Northrop Grumman performs folding test on James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

The $8 billion pre-launch spending cap and October 2018 launch date were established during a JWST program replan in September 2011.  This replan followed a 2010 report by NASA in which the agency highlighted how the original budget, schedule, and subsequent budget changes made the JWST project’s original plan and budget untenable.

The 2011 replan was a complete re-baselining of JWST with a new life cycle cost estimate of $8.835 billion (with a total cost not to exceed $8 billion prior to launch), including additional money for operations, a replanned launch in October 2018, and 13 months of funded schedule reserve.

That funded schedule reserve ran out in summer 2017, leading NASA to announce the five to eight month launch slip of James Webb from October 2018 to March-June 2019 – which provided four months of schedule reserve – double what Northrop Grumman said was necessary – into the schedule.

However, according to the February 2018 GAO report, “shortly after requesting the revised launch window from ESA (the European Space Agency), which will contribute the launch vehicle, the project learned from Northrop Grumman that up to another 3 months of schedule reserve use was expected, due to lessons learned from conducting deployment exercises of the spacecraft element and sunshield.”

An Ariane 5 ECA – the same variant that will launch James Webb – lifts off from its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana. [Credit: ESA]

NASA and Northrop Grumman looked at the remaining schedule for JWST at that point and implemented a few schedule efficiencies to buy back 14 days of reserve, leaving the agency with just 1.5 months of schedule reserve with over a year to go until launch.

However, this 1.5 months of remaining schedule reserve to meet the new launch window was “below the standards established by Goddard Space Flight Center for a project at this stage of development,” noted the GAO report.

(Lead Image: Protected from the Sun’s rays by its multi-layer sunshield, the James Webb Space telescope opens its mirrors to observe the universe.  Render by Nathan Koga for L2/NSF).

Related Articles