GAO: James Webb Space Telescope Keeps Slipping Into the Future

Artist’s impression of James Webb Space Telescope. (Credit; NASA)

NASA’s massive James Webb Space Telescope continues to pile up cost overruns and schedule delays as it prepares to exceed the $8 billion cap placed on the program by Congress.

“The project and observatory contractor significantly underestimated the time required to complete integration and test work on the spacecraft element,” according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Execution of spacecraft integration and test tasks was much slower than planned due to a variety of challenges including complexity of work and reach and access limitations on flight hardware.

“In addition, the observatory contractor has consumed several weeks of schedule reserves due to various workmanship errors, particularly with respect to the spacecraft propulsion systems,” the report added. “For example, an observatory contractor technician applied too much voltage and damaged components of the propulsion system, and reattaching the replacement components consumed 5 weeks of reserves.”

GAO found that valves in the spacecraft’s thruster modules had been damaged by a cleaning solution. Reattachment of the refurbished modules was “delayed by one month when a technician applied too much voltage to one of the components in a recently refurbished thruster module.”

The government oversight body also found the contractor had to maintain higher than planned workforce levels for longer than anticipated, hindering the program’s ability to control costs.

NASA has informed Congress the telescope will likely exceed the $8 billion spending cap. The launch of the spacecraft has slipped from October 2018 to approximately May 2020.

NASA has ordered an independent review of the program that is expected to wrap up by the end of May.

The GAO’s assessment of the James Webb Space Telescope program is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a large, infrared-optimized space telescope designed to help understand the origin and destiny of the universe, the creation and evolution of the first stars and galaxies, and the formation of stars and planetary systems. It will also help further the search for Earth-like planets. JWST will have a large primary mirror composed of 18 smaller mirrors and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. Both the mirror and sunshield are folded for launch and open once JWST is in space. JWST will reside in an orbit about 1 million miles from the Earth.

Program Information

NASA Lead Center: Goddard Space Flight Center
International Partners: European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency
Launch Location: Kourou, French Guiana
Launch Vehicle: Ariane 5
Mission Duration: 5 years (10-year goal)
Requirement Derived from: 2001 Astrophysics Decadal Survey
Budget Portfolio: Science, Astrophysics

Project Summary

The JWST project delayed its planned launch readiness date by a total of at least 19 months from October 2018 to May 2020. In March 2018, NASA announced the most recent delay to approximately May 2020 based on a schedule analysis by its standing review board. This analysis showed that more time will be needed to integrate and test the telescope and spacecraft elements and conduct environmental testing.

For several years, the observatory contractor has overestimated workforce reductions at the beginning of each fiscal year, but technical challenges have prevented the planned reductions and hindered JWST’s ability to control costs. As a result, the observatory contractor has maintained higher workforce levels than expected, and may continue to do so in the coming months. Along with the latest launch delay, this puts the project at risk of exceeding its $8 billion congressional cost cap.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The JWST project has delayed its planned launch readiness date by at least 19 months, from the committed October 2018 launch readiness date to approximately May 2020. NASA announced two delays for the project since we last reported in May 2017. First, in September 2017, the project announced a delay of up to 8 months based on the results of a schedule risk assessment that showed various components of spacecraft element integration were taking longer to complete than expected.

Prior to establishing the new launch window, the project used all remaining schedule reserves to address various technical issues, including a test anomaly on the telescope and sunshield hardware challenges. The new launch date included up to 4 months of new schedule reserves.

However, by February 2018, the project had consumed the 4 months of reserves due to continuing challenges with spacecraft integration and test. Then, in March 2018, the JWST project announced an 11-month launch readiness delay to approximately May 2020 based on the results of a standing review board schedule analysis.

Credit: GAO

According to the analysis, the previous launch date was not possible due to lessons learned during spacecraft element integration and test and propulsion system rework. The analysis further indicated that more time will be needed to integrate and test the telescope and spacecraft element sand conduct environmental testing.

Due to these challenges, the observatory contractor has maintained higher levels of workforce than expected, and may continue to do so in the coming months. As a result, the project is at risk of exceeding the $8 billion congressional cap for formulation and development costs established in 2011.

An external independent review board will conduct a schedule analysis, with the results expected in May 2018, to be followed by the agency’s final decision on JWST’s launch date in June 2018 and a report to Congress in summer 2018. After the launch date is determined, NASA will update the project’s cost estimate.

Integration and Test

The project and observatory contractor significantly underestimated the time required to complete integration and test work on the spacecraft element. Execution of spacecraft integration and test tasks was much slower than planned due to a variety of challenges including complexity of work and reach and access limitations on flight hardware.

In addition, the observatory contractor has consumed several weeks of schedule reserves due to various workmanship errors, particularly with respect to the spacecraft propulsion systems. For example, an observatory contractor technician applied too much voltage and damaged components of the propulsion system, and reattaching the replacement components consumed 5 weeks of reserves.

Also in May 2017, the observatory contractor discovered that valves in the thruster modules — which help control spacecraft on-orbit positioning — had been damaged by a cleaning solution and had to be refurbished. Reattaching the refurbished modules was expected to be complete by February 2018, but was delayed by one month when a technician applied too much voltage to one of the components in a recently refurbished thruster module.

Contractor

The observatory contractor continued to maintain higher than planned workforce levels in the past year, and may continue to do so in the coming months. For several years, the observatory contractor has overestimated workforce reductions at the beginning of each fiscal year, but technical challenges have prevented the planned reductions and hindered JWST’s ability to control costs.

After completing negotiations on a cost overrun proposal in September 2017, driven by higher-than-planned workforce levels, the project is expected to issue a request for proposal from the observatory contractor in early 2018 for the costs for the remaining work through the new launch window. A cost overrun proposal seeks to increase the value of a cost-reimbursement contract when the total estimated cost is less than the contract’s estimated cost to complete the performance of the contract.

Project Office Comments

JWST project officials provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.