Witnesses Discuss Challenges for the James Webb Space Telescope

Dec 6, 2011
Witnesses Discuss Challenges for the James Webb Space Telescope

Washington, D.C. – Today, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing to receive testimony from NASA, along with academic and industry stakeholders, on the progress and remaining challenges associated with completing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) conveyed support for JWST and the advances it would bring to the scientific community, while echoing several Members’ concerns about cost overruns.  “The telescope would far surpass in size, power, and capability any previous space-based observatory launched by NASA and will enable new observations into the deepest corners of our universe,” Hall said.  However, regarding the project’s cost overruns in the current fiscal environment, Hall said, “In my view, NASA’s latest replan for the James Webb Space Telescope is the agency’s last opportunity to hold this program together.” 

JWST was ranked as the number one priority by the National Academy of Sciences in their decadal survey published in 2001.  JWST has mirrors six times the size of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which must be packaged in a rocket before being deployed in space.  Adding to the difficulty of project, there will be no chance for repairs after launch, so the planning and development has been a massive undertaking.  JWST’s original budget estimate by the National Academies in 2001 was $1 billion.  In 2008, NASA’s first cost and schedule commitment put the project’s baseline estimate at $5 billion with a launch readiness date of 2014.  The project is now expected to cost $8.85 billion, with a target launch date of October 2018.

Dr. Roger Blandford, Luke Blossom Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University and the Chair of the Committee for a Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics, noted the importance of JWST to the advancement of science and the complimentary role it would play with other programs already in place or under construction.  “JWST will also operate as an astronomical observatory and many, and perhaps most, areas of astronomy will be transformed by JWST in much the same way as they have been revolutionized by HST,” Dr. Blandford said. 

Echoing the potential of JWST, Dr. Garth Illingworth, a member of the JWST Independent Comprehensive Review Committee (ICRP), described the telescope as the “cornerstone of the science goals for the coming decade.”  He also noted some of the problems that have caused the project to have so many cost overruns, while defending the project’s management.“No project will be free of unexpected issues,” he said. “This is not a reflection of management incompetence, management inexperience, poor oversight or lack of independent assessment.” 

Mr. Richard Howard, Director of the JWST Program for NASA, conceded that more oversight was needed when building the telescope.  “We recognize the challenges NASA’s poor management, cost, and schedule performance on the JWST have created for the Congress, especially in the current fiscal environment.”  He went on to point out the agency has “accepted all of the ICRP recommendations,” but said there are no technical performance issues. 

Mr. Jeffrey Grant, sector vice president and general manager of space systems for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, testified on the challenges and successes of such a large project, but he was optimistic that the project would be finished quickly within the budget constraints.  “We are using the largest cryogenic vacuum chamber in the world at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and even that chamber is not large enough to hold the full-up JWST observatory with the sunshield deployed,” he said.  “It was challenging to manufacture 18 beryllium mirrors that can hold their shape to better than 20 nanometers at cryogenic temperature.  It was also challenging to design a deployable sunshield the size of a tennis court, but those challenges are behind us,” he said when explaining how that the majority of the high risk technologies have already been matured and constructed.