NASA announced some measures they would take at Northrop Grumman’s facility in California, where all of Webb’s parts currently reside. The space agency said they will increase engineering oversight at the facility in Redondo Beach and will track the company’s test reports on a weekly basis. Senior management from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where much of the telescope was constructed, will work out of Northrop Grumman’s offices on a permanent basis. Northrop Grumman’s project manager for Webb will report directly to C-suite level executives at the company “to help remove roadblocks to success within the company,” the officials said.
Altogether, these small fixes point to a big problem. Some of the issues with the Webb project, they suggest, are the fault of Northrup Grumman. The GAO report suggested as much last month, saying that for several years “the prime contractor has overestimated workforce reductions, and technical challenges have prevented these planned reductions, necessitating the use of cost reserves.”
To get Webb to the finish line, NASA seems to have decided it has to get more involved in its contractor’s operations than ever before.
Northrop Grumman said in a statement the company “remains steadfast in its commitment to NASA and ensuring successful integration, launch and deployment” of Webb.
The next few months may be some of the most consequential for the Webb mission. The project is not out of the woods yet when it comes to testing the space observatory. The spacecraft element—the sun shield and the bus—still has to undergo the same kind of environmental testing that the telescope element already experienced. The process is expected to take a few months. Engineers will then put Webb all together and test it as one, making sure that all components work.
NASA said Tuesday it’s setting up an independent review board chaired by Tom Young, a NASA veteran. The recommendation from this committee and other groups “will be considered by NASA as it defines a more specific launch time frame,” NASA said. The space agency will then provide an assessment to Congress. In other words, don’t etch “May 2020” in stone just yet.
The delay comes a little over a week before the deadline for submissions from astronomy proposals for Webb’s first batch of observations, leading to some pretty good but painful tweets, like this one:
There is no question that the Webb will launch someday. NASA has already invested $7.3 billion in the project, so to kill the space telescope now, after 20 years, would be to waste all that money.
But these technical issues sound particularly distressing when you consider just how complex Webb’s deployment process will be. Once in space, the space observatory will spend about two weeks unfurling into shape, all the while making course corrections as it settles into its orbit around the sun. The process is completely automated and involves about 180 deployments.
NASA officials have said Webb can only withstand the failure of about six steps in this sequence. If something goes wrong, there’s nothing anyone can do back on the ground. Unlike Hubble, Webb is not built to receive repair crews, and at nearly 1 million miles from Earth, it’s too far for astronauts to reach. Mistakes on the ground are far easier to deal with than errors in space.