House Science Committee Reviews James Webb Space Telescope

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Publication date: 
1 April 2015
Number: 
46

“This next great space observatory remains within budget and on track to meets its October 2018 launch date” declared John Grunsfeld, NASA Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator.  Grunsfeld’ s remark came at last’s week hearing of the House Subcommittee on Space that met to review the progress and future challenges of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS); the Ranking Member is Donna Edwards (D-MD).  Both expressed, as did other subcommittee members, great interest in and support for the telescope. 

This was a very positive hearing for the JWST.  While the program previously experienced significant cost and schedule overruns it has remained on track in the four years since it was rebaselined in 2011.  JWST has been the subject of intense reviews internally and externally, with annual reviews by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  An indication of the success of the management control of the project is how it aligns with the rebaseline.  The project has ten months of unused reserves as its moves into the integration and testing phrase, more time than was planned or what is customary for a project of this size and complexity. 

Perhaps the most telling comments expressed in the hearing about the effectiveness of the JWST’s management were those of Cristina Chaplain, Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, GAO.  Chaplain told the subcommittee “Ten months of reserve is a long time, and the cost reserve is very healthy, and I don’t often get to testify on programs with that kind of luxury in terms of reserve.”  Cautioning that JWST is a very complicated program, and agreeing with the other witnesses that integration and testing may present unforeseen problems, Chaplain added “So we are still concerned about schedule but they are in a healthy position at this point.”

Also testifying at this hearing were Jeffrey Grant, Vice-President & General Manager, Space Systems, Northrop Grumman Corporation and John Mather, Senior Project Scientist, James Webb Space Telescope, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA. 

Production of the Mid-Infrared Instrument cryocooler compressor assembly has been challenging because of its need to operate with low vibration, at high efficiency, and at far colder temperatures than other units of this type.  Grant testified that the cooler’s final component is undergoing testing and is scheduled to be delivered in June.  Two-thirds of the cooler’s components have already been delivered. 

Several committee members asked about the adequacy of NASA’s funding for the remaining work to be accomplished by the 2018 launch.   The agency requested $620 million for JWST for FY 2016.  Grunsfeld and Grant spoke with confidence about the adequacy of this request and future scheduled requests to complete the telescope.  Grunsfeld declined to specify what programs or projects NASA might revise if there was a cost overrun due to unforeseen problems.

Committee members expressed much interest in the science the JWST will make possible.  Mather told the subcommittee that while considerable progress has made in astrophysics, “profound questions remain.”  In answer to questions about the relevance of the telescope to the average American family, Mather spoke of the public’s deep interest in “where did we come from.”  The JWST will, he said, help answer that question.  “Expect amazing discoveries,” Mather said, reinforcing the comment he made earlier in the hearing that “this is an amazing telescope.”