The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has completed two days of hearings to understand the James Webb Space Telescope – the flagship project NASA – could have gone from a $ 500 million budget launch scheduled for 2007 to a $ 20 billion start in 2021 with a $ 9.6 billion budget.
The discussion was largely subdued, and many of the respondents reiterated their support for, and the measures recommended by, a recent independent review. But tensions rose during the statement by Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush, in which he refused to announce his company's 2017 earnings with Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and instead offer documentation for the record.
"How could a CEO not know you how high the company's profit was over the past year?" Said Smith.
The James Webb Space Telescope promises to be Hubble's incredible successor. It will sit at L2, a gravitationally stable spot, one million miles from Earth, where the telescope can maintain the same position relative to our planet and the Sun. The budget is always bloated and the start date has been postponed several times as the project's goals have become more ambitious and unexpected problems have arisen. In recent times, setbacks in tests with a healthy proportion of human error have postponed the scheduled launch date from May 2020 to March 2021. The project will require another $ 800 million.
Much of the budget overrun results from over-optimism related to the project, as we show in detail here. But Smith blamed Norton Grumman, the NASA contractor, for some of the most debated human errors. In one case, the company used the wrong solvent to clean valves in the engines of the telescope, which destroyed some equipment. He said that the lack of individual safety checks would lead to problems and errors that only occurred during testing. A recently released Independent Review Board led by former NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center director Tom Young recently released a report with a set of recommendations for the team to look for other possible errors, conduct tests, and run the project complete.
Bush said Northrop Grumman would meet the recommendations in the independent review. In addition, he said that all payments that have already been received and are to be received in the future for the contract would be posted to a holding account and would only be released to his company if the mission were successful.
But when Smith asked what Northrop Grumman's profit would drop to the nearest billion dollars in 2017, Bush would not say (it's $ 2.015 billion). When Congressman asked Smith if Northrop Grumman would pay the $ 800 million the project is expected to pay, Bush said the company would not.
Gizmodo has asked Northrop Grumman for a comment and will update the post as soon as we hear it.
NASA retains some responsibility for the project's changing plan. "We can blame the contractor, but it's up to us to have mission success," said Jim Bridenstine, NASA's director.
Despite these challenges, members of the congress are obviously still thrilled with the Flagship Mission's zeal to show the world what American science can do. Many understand how much science has changed – astronomers have found thousands of exoplanets since the project began, and the secrets of dark matter and dark energy have only deepened.
Still, some remained angry about the project. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) asked for possible penalties for Northrop Grumman and suggested that these delays be taken into account when NASA rates future contracts. Others asked if future project plans would have better gaps, so that errors would be noticed before integrated testing.
NASA is also concerned with the impact of these budget overruns. At yesterday's hearing, NASA director Bridenstine said there were discussions but no decisions about how JWST could "exploit" other missions. He mentioned the delay of the upcoming WFIRST telescope as a possibility, but said the needed funding would not come from manned spaceflight efforts.
There is still much to do before hopefully a launch in March 2021 will take place. Bridenstine mentioned 300 potential failure points requiring tests and an optimistic schedule. And since the telescope will be on L2, rather near Earth, you can not fix it easily if something goes wrong, as Hubble needed a quick fix on his own setup.
Yet, despite the enormous cost and the discouraging delays, it will be an incredible telescope, as any astronomer Gizmodo has talked about the mission with. It will be able to explore the extremes of the universe and perhaps discover things we have not even questioned. It just has to get up.