Artist’s view of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in space, up and operating tackling a full agenda of space science conquests.
Credit: Northrop Grumman

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee finished a two-part hearing today on delays and cost increases for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), affectingly also known in some circles as the Just Wait Space Telescope.

Launch goal

“It is truly staggering to behold how this space telescope’s cost and schedule projections went from costing the same as a Space Shuttle mission—around half a billion dollars with an original launch goal in 2007—to now becoming an expenditure exceeding $9 billion with a new launch goal in March 2021,” said Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. “That is nineteen times the original cost and a delay of fourteen years. It’s hard to get much worse than that.”

Independent Review Board (IRB) was chaired by Tom Young, a board that identified systemic problems in the management and execution of JWST. Credit: House Science, Space, and Technology Committee/Screengrab

Hurting other missions

Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin pointed out that the additional costs for JWST are hurting other missions.

“The $803 million needed to fund the JWST cost breach could fund nearly every one of NASA’s science funding shortfalls from FY13 to FY16. These projects include Earth science and education projects greatly promoted by our Democratic colleagues on the committee.”

Babin said that “decisions made now can have long lasting implications on future missions. We need to know that there is not a systemic or fundamental management problem with how NASA plans and executes these larger strategic missions.”

Independent review

The hearing came shortly after an Independent Review Board (IRB), chaired by Tom Young, identified systemic problems in the management and execution of JWST.

That report identified five fundamental issues that contributed to the delay: human errors, embedded problems, lack of experience in areas such as the sunshield, excessive optimism, and system complexity.

“Our report contains 32 recommendations,” Young said at the hearing. “We believe the implementation of all 32 recommendations is required to maximize the probability of JWST success,” he told the Committee.

Lessons learned

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine provided testimony on the first panel and assured the Committee that NASA will be implementing the Independent Review Board recommendations.

“NASA also recognizes that the lessons learned here have similarities to other issues we are seeing around NASA’s development programs for large, complex space systems and it is imperative for NASA to not only internalize these messages to lasting effect on Webb, but also across all of NASA’s programs,” Bridenstine said.

On the hearing hot seat. Wesley Bush, CEO of Northrup Grumman, the primary contractor on JWST.
Credit: House Science, Space, and Technology Committee/Screengrab

Grumbles about Grumman

Wesley Bush, CEO of Northrup Grumman, the primary contractor on JWST, testified on the second panel and acknowledged that, “Northrup Grumman recognizes that we have contributed to some of the program’s challenges.”

Chairman Smith pressed the issue, saying that “the U.S. aerospace industry has the highest skilled workforce in the world. Their scientists, engineers, and technicians have built incredibly challenging and complex aerospace systems. So the workplace errors and lack of discipline, auditing, and quality control described by the IRB could lead us to believe that the real issue is with Northrop Grumman.”

Cost overruns

In questioning, Smith asked whether Northrup Grumman had taken responsibility for the problems listed in the Independent Review Board report.

“In Mr. Young’s report there were several instances of preventable human error that were pinpointed that led to millions of dollars in cost overruns. I’m wondering if those employees are still employed by Northrup Grumman,” Smith asked.  Bush could not confirm that anyone had been fired as a result of the human errors that have delayed JWST.

JWST’s combined science instruments and optical element recently completed 100 days of thermal vacuum testing inside NASA Johnson Space Center’s Chamber A. Engineers are seen by the hardware shortly after it emerged from the huge test facility on December 1, 2017.
Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

 

 

Smith asked if Northrup Grumman was planning to pay the $800 million in above-cap expenses, and the answer was also no.

“I wish that Northrup Grumman would take responsibility and show a little bit more good faith both for the taxpayer and for the cost overruns,” Smith said.

 

 

 

 

The JWST hearing panels are available to watch at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmAmcuDB8Q8

And also:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkWd4OChlDg

Note: This story based largely on House Science, Space, and Technology Committee press statement.

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