House Science Committee Demands Answers on James Webb Space Telescope Delays
WASHINGTON – The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee finished a two-part hearing today on delays and cost increases for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
“It is truly staggering to behold how this space telescope’s cost and schedule projections went from costing the same as a Space Shuttle mission—around half a billion dollars with an original launch goal in 2007—to now becoming an expenditure exceeding $9 billion with a new launch goal in March 2021,” said Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. “That is nineteen times the original cost and a delay of fourteen years. It’s hard to get much worse than that.”
Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin pointed out that the additional costs for JWST are hurting other missions. “The $803 million needed to fund the JWST cost breach could fund nearly every one of NASA’s science funding shortfalls from FY13 to FY16. These projects include Earth science and education projects greatly promoted by our Democratic colleagues on the committee.” He continued, “decisions made now can have long lasting implications on future missions. We need to know that there is not a systemic or fundamental management problem with how NASA plans and executes these larger strategic missions.”
The hearing came shortly after an Independent Review Board, chaired by Tom Young, identified systemic problems in the management and execution of JWST. The report identified five fundamental issues that contributed to the delay: human errors, embedded problems, lack of experience in areas such as the sunshield, excessive optimism, and system complexity.
“Our report contains 32 recommendations. We believe the implementation of all 32 recommendations is required to maximize the probability of JWST success,” Young told the Committee.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine provided testimony on the first panel and assured the Committee that NASA will be implementing the IRB recommendations. “NASA also recognizes that the lessons learned here have similarities to other issues we are seeing around NASA’s development programs for large, complex space systems and it is imperative for NASA to not only internalize these messages to lasting effect on Webb, but also across all of NASA’s programs,” said Bridenstine.
Wesley Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman, the primary contractor on JWST, testified on the second panel and acknowledged that, “Northrop Grumman recognizes that we have contributed to some of the program’s challenges.”
Chairman Smith pressed the issue, saying, “the U.S. aerospace industry has the highest skilled workforce in the world. Their scientists, engineers, and technicians have built incredibly challenging and complex aerospace systems. So the workplace errors and lack of discipline, auditing, and quality control described by the IRB could lead us to believe that the real issue is with Northrop Grumman.”
In questioning, Smith asked whether Northrop Grumman had taken responsibility for the problems listed in the IRB report. “In Mr. Young’s report there were several instances of preventable human error that were pinpointed that led to millions of dollars in cost overruns. I’m wondering if those employees are still employed by Northrop Grumman,” Smith asked. Bush could not confirm that anyone had been fired as a result of the human errors that have delayed JWST.
Smith asked if Northrop Grumman was planning to pay the $800 million in above-cap expenses, and the answer was also no.
“I wish that Northrop Grumman would take responsibility and show a little bit more good faith both for the taxpayer and for the cost overruns,” Smith said.