NASA announced another delay Tuesday for its $8.8 billion James Webb Telescope Project (JWST), pushing back the potential launch date to May 2020 following continued integration and testing issues.

Problems with the massive telescope’s propulsion system and sunshield capabilities have forced NASA program officials to increase oversight of prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC]  integration & testing [I&T) efforts moving forward.

Illustration of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Photo: NASA.
Illustration of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Photo: NASA.

“We want to make sure we know what’s going on pretty much on a daily basis, and make sure we know that not only does NASA have the right attention on it but our contractor as well. That level of attention, frankly, has a lot to do with how important this mission is to us,” Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot told reporters during a Tuesday teleconference.

JWST is NASA’s largest international space project, built in partnership with the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency. When it launches, the telescope will go into orbit over one million miles from Earth and capture the most distant objects in the universe to data.

A standing review board (SRB) delivered an independent assessment earlier in March detailing persistent technical challenges with JWST elements. NASA is now establishing an external review board (ERB) to be chaired by Tom Young, a former agency and Lockheed Martin [LMT] official to oversee the program’s future progress.

Officials are expected to deliver a full report to Congress based on the SRB and ERB’s assessments in late June, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD).

Zurbuchen confirmed that with the ongoing technical challenges NASA officials may exceed Congress’ original $8.8 billion cost cap for the project.

“We actually, at this moment in time, don’t really fully know what the exact cost will be of the entire completed and deployed spacecraft,” Zurbuchen told reporters during the teleconference.

This follows several previous delays and increases in the program’s budget, including an announcement in December 2017 that the launch would be delayed from October 2018 to the spring of 2019 (Defense Daily, Dec. 6).

The current May 2020 launch data is at a 70 percent confidence level, according to Zurbuchen.

“Simply put, we have one shot to get this right before going into space. Failure is not an option,” Zurbuchen said. “This is the largest international space science project in U.S. history, and we need to take the time necessary to evaluate this data very closely to ensure that we get back on track and get it right while on the ground. We want to make sure the launch is in 2020.”

NASA is working with Northrop Grumman to address ongoing concerns with the telescope’s two main parts after I&T work discovered lingering issues.

“We were rather optimistic in how we projected that I&T schedule. We’ve added some realism to that,” Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator of SMD, said.

JWST’s propulsion system has caused delays due to errors in testing that led to leaks in the spacecraft’s thruster valves. A transducer in the propulsion system was also incorrectly powered, causing a 3-month setback in integration, according to Andruyck.

I&T work with JWST’s specialized protective sunshield capabilities showed its deployment system was taking twice as long as expected.

A tensioning system for the sunshield also malfunctioned during testing, resulting in tears that needed to be replaced.

“We’re reviewing technical processes and procedures out of Northrop Grumman to ensure mission success,” Zurbuchen said. 

To address the ongoing challenges, NASA is increasing engineering oversight and deploying project managers from the JWST project office at the Goddard Space Flight Center to Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif.

NASA is also adjusting its management reporting structure on the project, and moving to direct interaction with Northrop Grumman’s president and COO for oversight of JWST.

“Northrop Grumman remains steadfast in its commitment to NASA and ensuring successful integration, launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s most advanced space telescope,” Northrop Grumman said in a statement.