James Webb Space Telescope facing further delays, watchdog warns

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WASHINGTON — A government watchdog is warning that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the long-awaited successor to the Hubble that’s been beset by schedule snafus and cost overruns, might face further delays.

NASA announced in September it had pushed back the launch date of the JWST from late 2018 to some time in the spring of 2019 due to testing delays partly blamed on Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Texas’ Gulf Coast in August.

On Wednesday, lawmakers on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee were told it could take even longer to launch the world’s most powerful telescope.

“More delays are possible given the risks associated with the work ahead and the level of schedule reserves that are now (below) what’s recommended,” said Cristina Chaplain, director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management for the Government Accountability Office.

Schedule reserves are extra time built into project timetables that are used to mitigate delays or address unforeseen risks.

Chaplain acknowledged the complexities associated with building, assembling and testing one of NASA’s most ambitious missions. When launched, the orbiting infrared observatory named after the NASA administrator most associated with the Apollo program will be 100 times more powerful than Hubble and can peer toward the beginning of time and hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions, told lawmakers he expects the space agency will be able to meet the spring 2019 schedule.

“I believe it’s achievable,” he said.

The telescope has been plagued by delays and overruns since it was first conceived more than 20 years ago. Initially, NASA hoped to build the next-generation observatory for less than $1 billion and launch it no later than 2011. By 2009, the cost had ballooned to nearly $5 billion, prompting Congress to take the unusual step of capping total costs.

Under the current 2019 schedule, the price tag would be about $8 billion.

The project has encountered a number of bumps along the road, including in 2014 when prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems had to rebuild parts of the structure and problems persisted with development of the cryocooler needed to chill the telescope’s infrared sensors.

JWST is not the only NASA observatory under the congressional microscope.

Two other space telescopes being develop — the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and the  Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) — also are facing varying degrees of challenges that could lead to increased costs or delays, according to the GAO.

Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the Science, Space and Technology Committee, urged NASA to address problems before they get out of hand.

“We are on the cusp of something very significant for humanity. But we are still at the beginning. Many more amazing discoveries await us,” he said. “Going forward, Congress needs to have the necessary confidence in NASA and its contractors to put us on the right path at a reasonable cost.”

More: Trump budget keeps NASA mostly intact but jettisons a few Obama priorities

More: James Webb telescope to see first stars and galaxies

 

 

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