Tag Archives: JWST

GAO denied access to Webb telescope workers by Northrop Grumman

In a report as well as at House hearings today the GAO reported that Northrop Grumman has denied them one-on-one access to workers building the James Webb Space Telescope.

The interviews, part of a running series of GAO audits of the NASA flagship observatory, which is billions of dollars overbudget and years behind schedule, were intended to identify potential future trouble spots, according to a GAO official. But Northrop Grumman Aerospace, which along with NASA says the $9 billion project is back on track, cited concerns that the employees, 30 in all, would be intimidated by the process.

To give Northrop Grumman the benefit of the doubt, these interviews were a somewhat unusual request. Then again, if all was well why would they resist? Note too that the quote above says the cost of the telescope project is now $9 billion. That’s a billion increase since the last time I heard NASA discuss Webb. If the project was “back on track: as the agency and Northrop Grumman claim, than why has the budget suddenly increased by another billion?

Problems with the European Gaia space telescope

Shades of Hubble: The first data from Europe’s Gaia space telescope, launched to map a billion Milky Way stars, will be delayed 9 months while engineers grapple with several problems.

Gaia managers started taking test images early this year, but soon noticed three issues. For one, more light than anticipated is bending around the 10-metre sunshield and entering the telescope.

Small amounts of water trapped in the spacecraft before launch are being released now that the telescope is in the vacuum of space, and more ice than calculated is accumulating on the telescope’s mirrors. In addition, the telescope itself is expanding and contracting by a few dozen nanometres more than expected because of thermal variations.

Mission managers say the number of stars detected will remain the same even if these complications remain untreated, but the accuracy in measurements of the fainter stars will suffer.

Unlike Hubble, however, there is no way to send a shuttle and a team of astronauts to Gaia to fix it. And it sounds like these issues will have an impact on the telescope’s abilities to gather its intended data.

This story raises my hackles for another reason. Gaia was a very technically challenging space telescope to build, but it was far easier and less cutting edge than the James Webb Space Telescope. It also cost far less. What will happen when Webb gets launched later this decade? How likely is it to have similar issues? Based on a story I just completed for Sky & Telescope on the difficulties of building ground-based telescopes, I’d say Webb is very likely to have similar problems, with no way to fix them. The American astronomy community could then be faced with the loss of two decades of research because they had put all the eggs into Webb’s basket, and thus had no money to build anything else.

Bolden and Mikulski hold a press conference to lobby for continuing funding for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Bolden and Mikulski hold a press conference to lobby for continuing funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Before JWST entered development, around the turn of the century, program officials projected it would cost $1 billion to $3.5 billion and launch between 2007 to 2011, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Jan. 8. Now, after lengthy delays [seven years] and billions in added costs [a real budget of $8.8 billion], JWST is entering its peak development years, in which major subsystems will be put together, tested, integrated with one another, and tested again. It will be, according to Bolden, one of the most difficult parts of JWST’s construction.

“This is our tough budget year,” Bolden said. It is also the most expensive, according to projections the White House released last April with its 2014 budget proposal. Bolden spoke to the press here after he and Mikulski, JWST’s biggest ally in Congress, held a town hall meeting at Goddard, the center in charge of building the massive infrared observatory. Both NASA employees and executives from some of JWST’s major industry contractors attended.

Mikulski told reporters that automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, which reduced NASA’s 2013 appropriation to about $16.9 billion, “resulted in furloughs, shutdowns, slowdowns [and] slamdown politics [which] are exactly what could derail or cause enormous cost overruns to the James Webb.”

I am especially entertained by the disasters Mikulski lists in the last paragraph, all of which she blames on sequestration. They are identical to the lies Democratic politicians like her told before sequestration took effect, none of which happened. That she now makes believe as if these disasters did happen and expects us to believe her new lies about the future illustrates how much in contempt she holds the general public. Does she really believe people are that stupid?

The continuing technical troubles of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The continuing technical troubles of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Though it appears they are keeping within their latest budget and scheduling margins (which is almost nine times the original budget and almost a decade behind the original schedule), the number of issues described in this article is quite worrisome.

Space News suggests Congress use the billions for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket to fund JWST

In an editorial yesterday Space News suggested that Congress use the billions it is allocating for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket to fund the James Webb Space Telescope instead.

This is not surprising. Webb already has a strong constiuency (astronomers, the public) while the Space Launch System has little support outside of Congress and the specific aerospace contractors who want the work. With tight budgets as far as the eye can see into the future, and the likelihood that Congress is going to become more fiscal conservative after the next election, it would not shock me in the slightest if SLS gets eliminated and the money is given to Webb. And if the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences cargo missions to ISS go well then cutting SLS would almost be a certainty, as this success would demonstrate that these private companies should be able to replace SLS for a tenth of the cost.

And I also think this would be a much wiser use of the taxpayers money.

Another look at the cost of building NASA’s heavy lift rocket

Clark Lindsey takes another look at the cost for building the Congressionally-mandated heavy lift rocket, what NASA calls the Space Launch System and I call the program-formerly-called-Constellation. Key quote:

Finally, I’ll point out that there was certainly nothing on Wednesday that refuted the findings in the Booz Allen study that NASA’s estimates beyond the 3-5 year time frame are fraught with great uncertainty. Hutchison and Nelson claimed last week that since the near term estimates were reliable, there’s no reason to delay getting the program underway. That’s the sort of good governance that explains why programs often explode “unexpectedly” in cost after 3-5 years…

In other words, this is what government insiders call a “buy-in.” Offer low-ball budget numbers to get the project off the ground, then when the project is partly finished and the much higher real costs become evident, Congress will be forced to pay for it. Not only has this been routine practice in Washington for decades, I can instantly cite two projects that prove it:
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Senate reinserts money for the James Webb Space Telescope

The Senate has reinstated money for completing the James Webb Space Telescope.

The allocation in today’s markup does not automatically mean that the Webb telescope has been rescued. The markup will now go to the full appropriations committee for approval before going to the Senate floor for a vote. The approved bill will then have to be reconciled with the House version, which, NASA hopes, will result in a final appropriation that keeps the telescope alive.

The House version also zeroed out funding for Webb, so reconciling the two budgets will not be easy.

The dying NASA astrophysics program

The dying NASA astrophysics program.

With support from President Barack Obama, the agency’s Earth science budget is at an all-time high. Over the next four months, the planetary science division is due to launch three major missions: to the Moon, to Mars and to Jupiter. And the heliophysics division plans to send a probe plunging into the blistering atmosphere of the Sun, closer than ever before. But because the overall NASA science budget is relatively flat, something had to give. Since 2008, astrophysics funding has plunged relative to other NASA science and relative to physics and astronomy funding at other agencies.

House proposes to drop NASA’s budget to 2008 levels, eliminate Webb Telescope

The House today proposed cutting NASA’s budget back to 2008 levels while eliminating all funds for the James Webb Space Telescope.

As much as I’d hate to see the Webb telescope die, it has cost far more than planned, is way behind schedule, and carries a gigantic risk of failure. However, if I had a choice, I’d rather they cut the $1.95 billion for Congress’s homemade heavy-lift rocket, the program-formerly-called-Constellation. There is a much better chance that Webb will get completed, launched, and work, than there is for this improvised and impossibly costly Congressionally conceived rocket.

A press conference of my very own

This week the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland was holding a conference on the future research possibilities of the James Webb Space Telescope, and ended the conference with a writer’s workshop/press conference today.

Not surprisingly, there was not a lot of press interest. The Webb telescope is way behind schedule and over budget, and is not scheduled for launch until 2018. For most of the press, a press conference now on what Webb might someday do is really nothing more than a NASA sales pitch. Most reporters, including myself, don’t find these kinds of press conferences of much worth.

However, after thinking about it a bit, I decided to go, with the hope that I might be able to find out some more details about the state of the telescope’s construction.

To my astonishment, I discovered how little press interest there was, as it turned out I was the only journalist there! When the presentations ended, the whole workshop became an exercise in answering Bob Zimmerman’s questions about Webb and astronomy. I felt a bit embarrassed about this, but then decided the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask, and forged ahead. Moreover, the situation probably was far more embarrassing for the press people at the Institute then it was for me.
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