A telescope project that has become notorious for its ballooning cost and repeated delays has lately been operating on schedule and within budget, NASA officials told Congress last week. One of the most ambitious and powerful observatories ever built, the $8.8-billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is on track to launch in 2018, said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor hired to build the telescope, has lately been troubleshooting a problem with the “cryocooler” meant to stop heat from interfering with the telescope’s sensitive infrared camera, which requires frigid temperatures to see such long wavelengths. The issue raised fears in Congress that the observatory would be delayed, or worse—that it might not work, just as its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, failed to operate properly at first and had to be repaired by shuttle astronauts. Unlike Hubble, however, James Webb is not designed to be serviced in space. “Whatever we put up has to work the first time,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Frank Lucas said at the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space hearing. “Those of us who were paying attention 25 years ago remember the initial trauma after the launch of Hubble. Let’s talk for a moment about this cryocooler business.”
Telescope managers assured the representatives that the cryocooler problems were under control, and that the difficulties were reasonable given that the instrument must operate at much colder temperatures than previous coolers. “This is a very challenging job—in fact more challenging than we anticipated,” said Jeffrey Grant, sector vice president and general manager of space systems at Northrop Grumman. “We’ve made great progress.”
The JWST is designed to look farther into the universe than ever before, to spot some of the first stars and galaxies that formed around 13 billion years ago. Back before 2000 NASA officials estimated the telescope’s price tag at around $1 billion, and expected it to be able to launch between 2007 and 2011. After repeatedly falling behind schedule and over budget, Congress threatened to cancel the program altogether. But a replan and management overhaul in 2011 saved the scope and put in place the new 2018 deadline.
With just three years remaining before JWST’s planned launch onboard a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, NASA has 10 months of “margin” left in the schedule to accommodate delays without pushing back the launch date. That is more time than most NASA projects have at this stage, Grunsfeld said. Still, there is not much room for more problems like the cryocooler. “While 10 months is still a lot of time and well within the program, there are still reasons to be concerned,” said Cristina Chaplain of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has been overseeing progress on the JWST. “Most space projects encounter problems they did not expect to encounter in this phase.” Rep. Donna Edwards (D–Md.) wondered if 10 months was enough: “The question is how much the cryocooler is going to eat into that reserve.”
Chaplain also complained that Northrop Grumman refused to allow GAO officers to interview its employees anonymously during the oversight analysis. “This is a key best practice and a fundamental part of our methodology,” she said. “Anytime we are denied access to people or documents we are concerned because it could be a sign that an entity is concerned about what we will find.” Grumman insisted the interviews would have been unfair to its workers. “It wasn’t just anonymous but isolating our junior employees,” Grant said. “I was unwilling to send these employees in by themselves.”
Ultimately NASA managers held firm that the JWST will not be delayed again. “The James Webb Space Telescope has been making exceptional progress,” Grunsfeld said. “I have confidence that we will be ready to launch this ambitious observatory in 2018.”
After the telescope launches, the biggest slice of the NASA budget—the JWST development funding—will be freed up for future years. Partisans for different projects are already eyeing that money, and lawmakers questioned how NASA plans to divvy up the spoils. “With overall budgets remaining flat, how the other $600 million a year will be reallocated after launch is one of the most important decisions facing NASA and the Congress,” said Space Subcommittee Chair Rep. Steven Palazzo (R–Miss.). He advocated distributing it among the programs, particularly in the planetary sciences, that were squeezed to route money to the JWST. For the sake of future projects as well as the beleaguered scope, both lawmakers and the aerospace teams are crossing their fingers for 2018.