NASA confirms Webb launch delayed again

NASA officials yesterday confirmed that, due to the new work conditions and the lock down imposed by the Wuhan flu panic, the launch of the James Webb Space telescope will not occur in March 2021.

“We will not launch in March,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the space agency’s associate administrator for science. “Absolutely we will not launch in March. That is not in the cards right now. That’s not because they did anything wrong. It’s not anyone’s fault or mismanagement.”

Zurbuchen made these comments at a virtual meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board. He said the telescope was already cutting it close on its schedule before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the agency and that the virus had led to additional lost work time. “This team has stayed on its toes and pushed this telescope forward at the maximum speed possible,” he said. “But we’ve lost time. Instead of two shifts fully staffed, we could not do that for all the reasons that we talk about. Not everybody was available. There were positive cases here and there (in the surrounding area, not on site). And so, perhaps, we had only one shift.”

No new target date has been set, though the comments even hinted that they might not be able to do it in 2021.

Webb will cost 20 times more than originally budgeted ($500 million vs $10 billion) and is now more than a decade behind schedule. In the process, those overages and delays wiped out almost all of NASA’s other astronomy projects during the 2010s.

But don’t worry! Once Webb launches the task of wiping out more astronomy projects with overages and delays will be courageously taken up by NASA’s Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST), already behind schedule and over budget, and it is still only in the design phase.

NASA names WFIRST after its first head of astronomy, Nancy Roman

NASA today announced that it has renamed the proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope in honor of the agency’s first head of astronomy.

Considered the “mother” of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which launched 30 years ago, Roman tirelessly advocated for new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe from space. She left behind a tremendous legacy in the scientific community when she died in 2018.

…When she arrived at NASA, astronomers could obtain data from balloons, sounding rockets and airplanes, but they could not measure all the wavelengths of light. Earth’s atmosphere blocks out much of the radiation that comes from the distant universe. What’s more, only a telescope in space has the luxury of perpetual nighttime and doesn’t have to shut down during the day. Roman knew that to see the universe through more powerful, unblinking eyes, NASA would have to send telescopes to space.

Through Roman’s leadership, NASA launched four Orbiting Astronomical Observatories between 1966 and 1972. While only two of the four were successful, they demonstrated the value of space-based astrophysics and represented the precursors to Hubble. She also championed the International Ultraviolet Explorer, which was built in the 1970s as a joint project between NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the United Kingdom, as well as the Cosmic Background Explorer, which measured the leftover radiation from the big bang and led to two of its leading scientists receiving the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Above all, Roman is credited with making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. In the mid-1960s, she set up a committee of astronomers and engineers to envision a telescope that could accomplish important scientific goals. She convinced NASA and Congress that it was a priority to launch the most powerful space telescope the world had ever seen.

This is a nice and very fitting gesture to honor one of the many unsung heroes who were important in the history of space astronomy. I just hope that Roman’s telescope doesn’t end up like James Webb’s, so over budget and behind schedule that it destroys all other NASA space telescope projects. Sadly, its track record so far suggests this is what will happen, which is why the Trump administration has been trying to get it canceled.

Astronomers begin their 2020 decadal survey

The astronomy community has begun work on their 2020 decadal survey, the report they issue at the start of every decade since the early 1960s outlining their space priorities for the upcoming ten years.

While the first four decadal surveys were very successful, leading to the surge in space telescopes in the 1990s, the last two surveys in 2000 and 2010 have been failures, with the former proposing the James Webb Space Telescope and the latter the Wide Field Infared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), both of which have not launched, are behind schedule, and significantly over-budget.

The new survey appears focused on addressing this.

The 2020 decadal survey will develop detailed cost estimates for each project, as well as guidance for what managers can do if money gets tight. “We have to look at the budget reality while also doing things that are visionary,” says Fiona Harrison, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and co-chair of the effort.

Unfortunately, it is also going to focus on leftist identity politics.

Responding to problems of racism and harassment in science, the survey will also assess the state of astronomy as a profession and make recommendations for how it can improve. “We’re going to go there,” says the other co-chair, Robert Kennicutt, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Texas A&M University in College Station.

I do not have high hopes for this decadal survey, or for space science in the 2020s. The space astronomy community chose badly in the past twenty years, and it is likely going to take another decade for it to recover. For example, WFIRST appears to be going forward, and it also appears that it will be the same financial black hole that Webb was, eating up the entire space astrophysics budget at NASA for years.

NASA wants to delay WFIRST to pay for Webb overruns

In testimony to Congress yesterday NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the agency wants to delay the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope to pay for the new cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Bridenstine said during the hearing that no decisions had been made on how to cover those additional JWST costs. “By the 2020 timeframe is when we’re going to need to have additional funds. So between now and then we’re going to have to make determinations,” he said. “Right now that process is underway.”

He said those decisions would consider the guidance from decadal surveys and a desire to maintain a balanced portfolio of programs. He specifically assured one member, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), that the extra funding would not come out of human spaceflight programs, particularly the Space Launch System. “This is relevant to the Science Mission Directorate exclusively, and that’s where, at this point, we’ve had discussions about what are the options going forward,” Bridenstine said.

Committee members used the two-and-a-half-hour hearing to express their frustrations with this latest delay, noting that the original concept for the mission [Webb] called for it to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, versus a current lifecycle cost of $9.6 billion and launch in 2021. “This is 19 times the original cost and a delay of 14 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.” [emphasis mine]

Only yesterday I speculated that the cuts to WFIRST were related to Webb. It turns out I was right.

I have highlighted above one detail revealed at the hearing. I have always thought Webb’s initial budget was $1 billion with a launch date of 2011. It appears it was less, by half, and it was supposed to launch four years sooner. Makes this boondoggle even more of an embarrassment for NASA and the astrophysics community. And for the astrophysics community it is also a disaster, because Webb’s overruns for the past two decades essentially wiped out what had been a very vibrant space astronomy program at NASA.

Canada exits WFIRST project

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship: The Canadian government has decided not to fund that country’s contribution to NASA’s WFIRST space telescope project, presently expected to cost $3.2 billion total (already over-budget in the design phase) and set to launch sometime in the 2020s (don’t bet on it).

The Canadian instrument would have been focused on studying dark energy, the mysterious force that is theorized to cause the universe’s expansion rate to accelerate over vast distances.

I can understand the skepticism of the Canadian government. Why commit anything to a project that is already over-budget and has unreliable support in the U.S. (Trump tried to ax it, Congress restored it, for now)? The project is also so far in the future it makes more sense to spend this money on astronomy projects that could be built and used now.

Webb faces more delays, cost overruns

A new GAO report released yesterday says that the James Webb Space Telescope faces further delays and cost overruns.

This is par for the course. Webb has become an incredible boondoggle. I hope it eventually gets launched and works, but its gigantic cost, $8 to $9 billion (compared to an original $1 billion budget), and delayed schedule suggests that this was not the right way for NASA or the astronomical community to build its space telescopes. Further, this quote from the story suggests something fundamentally wrong:

The GAO report also noted that, during the sunshield deployment exercises, Northrop discovered several tears in the material which it attributed to “workmanship error.” Those tears can be repaired but may consume more schedule reserve.

Is this thing really going to work? I really hope so, but have been increasingly doubtful as the delays and problems have piled up.

Meanwhile, NASA and the astronomical community is still pushing to get funding for its next “Webb,” the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). This project, similar in scope as Webb, is hardly off the ground and already has budget overrun issues. The Trump administration recommended cancelling in its budget proposal earlier this month, but I would be surprised if that recommendation goes through, considering the pork this new project represents.

More delays expected for launch of Webb telescope

NASA’s chief scientist admitted during House hearings this week that there will possibly be further delays in the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, now set for the 2nd quarter of 2019.

“At this moment in time, with the information that I have, I believe it’s achievable,” he said of the current launch window of March to June 2019, which NASA announced in September after delaying the launch from October 2018. However, he said an independent review “is exactly what we should be doing, and frankly I have directed the team to do just that in January.”

That review won’t start until January, he said, because of ongoing tests of unfolding the sunshade of the space telescope. Previous tests, he said, took much longer than anticipated, playing a key factor in the decision to delay the launch. An updated launch date, he said, would likely come in “January or February.”

Such an independent review was proposed earlier in the hearing by another witness, retired aerospace executive Thomas Young. “In my opinion, the launch date and required funding cannot be determined until a new plan is thoroughly developed and verified by independent review,” he said.

While it does make perfect sense to make sure everything is really really really ready before launch, that this telescope is already 8 years behind schedule and yet might still need more delays suggests that the whole project was managed badly, from start to finish.

The hearing also dealt with the cost increases NASA is experiencing for WFIRST. As is usual, it sounds like NASA’s buy-in approach there has worked, and that Congress will fork up the extra cash to keep that project alive, until it experiences further delays and more cost increases, when Congress will fork up even more money. Then, wash and repeat. The WFIRST budget is already up from about $3.5 billion to more than $4 billion. I predict before it is done it will have cost around $8-$10 billion, and not launch until the late 2020s, at the earliest.

New report says WFIRST is “not executable”

Another Webb! New NASA report has declared the agency’s next big telescope following the James Webb Space Telescope, dubbed the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is “not executable” and is significantly over budget.

“The risks to the primary mission of WFIRST are significant and therefore the mission is not executable without adjustments and/or additional resources,” the report states. It estimated the cost of the project at $3.9 billion to $4.2 billion, significantly above the project’s $3.6 billion budget.

Produced by an independent and external team to review the technical aspects of the program, its management, and costs, the report is critical of a series of key decisions made by NASA. The addition of a coronagraph and other design choices have made for a telescope that is “more complex than probably anticipated” and have substantially increased risks and costs, according to the report.

It also offered a scathing review of the relationship between NASA headquarters and the telescope’s program managers at Goddard Space Flight Center. “The NASA HQ-to-Program governance structure is dysfunctional and should be corrected for clarity in roles, accountability, and authority,” the report states.

Did you ever get a feeling of deja-vu? This is the same story that we saw with Hubble, and with Webb. It’s called a buy-in. The agency purposely sets the budget too low to begin with, gets it started, which then forces Congress to pay the big bucks when the budget inevitably goes out of control.

From my perspective I think this is the time to shut the project down. Since Hubble astronomers have apparently begun to take NASA’s cash cow for granted, and need to relearn the lesson that they don’t have a guarantee on the treasury. Once they get over the shock of losing WFIRST, they might then start proposing good space telescopes that are affordable and can be built relatively quickly, instead of these boondoggles that take forever and ten times the initial budget to build.

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.