Young said Wednesday that at one point the wrong solvent was used to clean the observatory’s propulsion valves. The substance turned out to be incompatible with the valves, which workers would have known if they’d called the solvent’s vendor to check, Young said. “This is a mistake that really should not have happened,” he said.
A wiring error caused workers to apply too much voltage to the spacecraft’s pressure transducers, severely damaging them. And during an acoustics test, which examines whether hardware can survive the loud sounds of launch, the fasteners designed to hold the sun shield together came loose. The incident scattered 70 bolts, and engineers scrambled to find them. They’re still looking for a few. “We’re really close to finding every one of the pieces,” Zerbuchen said.
These three errors alone resulted in a schedule delay of about 1.5 years and $600 million, Young said.
NASA officials said engineers will spend the summer recovering from these mistakes, particularly with the sun shield. They hope to resume testing the various systems in October. When the space observatory is completely assembled, it will undergo still more testing to ensure every bit of hardware is flight-worthy. When it’s ready, Webb will be shipped by boat to a European-operated launch facility in French Guiana.
NASA officials did not blame Northrop Grumman, but the agency has increased its oversight at the Los Angeles facility in recent months. NASA has redeployed engineers who had already finished their part on the mission, and even drawn in engineers from the ranks at Goddard who haven’t been involved. “We’re part of this team that has created this problem we’re in,” Zerbuchen said. “Of course Northrop Grumman is part of this, but we have oversight of this, so we take responsibility as well.”
Stephen Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, said the agency gives Northrop Grumman “performance plans” every six months, evaluates them based on those expectations, and pays them based on the outcomes. “Their award fees have reflected their performance in the previous period, and they’ll reflect performance moving forward,” Jurczyk said. “That’s how we hold them accountable and reward them for good performance—and not, for not-so-good performance.”
The current situation ranks high on NASA’s list of nightmare scenarios for this telescope, just under an explosion on launch day. When Webb was first proposed in 1996, officials estimated the mission would cost between $1 billion and $3.5 billion. More than a decade later, predicted costs had ballooned. In 2010, Nature called Webb “the telescope that ate astronomy.” As Webb consumed more and more funds, other NASA projects stalled. (When that article ran, NASA’s launch date was 2014.)
Bridenstine, Young, and Wes Bush, the CEO of Northrop Grumman, will face lawmakers at a hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee next month, and they should expect some heavy scrutiny. Lamar Smith, the Republican committee chairman, is well-known for being an astronomy fan, but it seems like his patience with Webb is wearing thin. “Program delays and cost overruns don’t just delay the JWST’s critical work, but they also harm other valuable NASA missions, which may be delayed, defunded, or discarded entirely,” Smith said in a statement Wednesday.