Editorial | Nothing To Hide on James Webb Space Telescope

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Northrop Should Rethink Refusal To Allow GAO To Interview Project Staff

The latest of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s annual status reports on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope served as another reminder that the long-troubled project, which was reset in 2011, still faces a number of technical challenges, most if not all of which have previously been identified.

And then there was this little nugget: JWST prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace denied a GAO request to interview 30 technical experts responsible for individual JWST program elements unless a supervisor was present. That revelation was buried in the middle of the 19-page report but came up during a March 24 hearing on NASA’s astronomy flagship, the designated successor to the groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope.

According to the GAO, the interviews, intended to identify potential trouble spots on a program that already has suffered huge cost growth and delays, were to be conducted anonymously so that the workers could speak freely. The congressional watchdog agency said an independent risk analysis was necessary because the most expensive portion of the program still lies ahead and any additional JWST cost growth would have repercussions for other science programs in NASA’s portfolio.

JWST in thermal vacuum chamber
The James Webb Space Telescope inside NASA’s giant thermal vacuum chamber, called Chamber A, at Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Northrop Grumman didn’t quite see it that way. Asked to explain the decision to deny the GAO’s request, Jeffrey Grant, the company’s top space executive, said it stemmed from concerns that the “junior- to mid-level” employees sought for the interviews lacked experience in direct dealings with government auditors and might have been intimidated. He characterized the GAO’s request as something he hadn’t seen before.

Christina Chaplain, the GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, conceded Mr. Grant’s point that this was something Northrop Grumman likely hadn’t seen before. But in prepared congressional testimony, Ms. Chaplain also said, “Anytime we’re denied access to people or documents, we are concerned since it could be a sign that an entity is afraid of what we will find.”

The episode certainly was unusual — from any perspective. Then again, there’s nothing normal about the JWST, NASA’s most expensive and ambitious undertaking outside of human spaceflight. Politics — the JWST has powerful friends in Congress — and the emotional tug of sunk investment were factors in keeping it alive after its projected lifecycle cost ballooned to nearly $9 billion. But the science is equally if not more compelling: With its incredibly sophisticated infrared sensors, the JWST will be able to look back in time to the earliest days of the universe, making discoveries that are all but certain to rewrite the astronomy textbooks.

This scientific potential, coupled with the program’s troubled history, make it vitally important to stay vigilant in monitoring its developmental progress. It is possible, even likely, that the JWST will encounter more technical hiccups and cost growth — resetting schedule and cost baselines does not immunize programs against this — and the best way to minimize their impact is to identify and address them immediately, budgetary implications notwithstanding.

Management’s failure to adequately budget for programmatic risks is a big reason why the JWST landed in hot water in the first place; work was deferred to stay within the program’s yearly budget until the resulting cost bubble inevitably grew too big to hide. This was a key finding of the independent panel tasked by Congress to review the program in 2010 after its problems came to light. Moreover, in an indication of the value of independence in conducting such reviews, that panel estimated that the JWST would cost $6.5 billion, which, though a bit short of what NASA came up with after resetting the program, was much closer to reality than the $5 billion figure the space agency was clinging to beforehand.

As it now stands, the GAO will rely on the results of NASA’s own recently completed internal audit of Northrop Grumman’s $3.5 billion JWST contract to assess program risks. This is not ideal because NASA is so heavily invested in the program.

If it’s not too late, Northrop Grumman ought to reconsider its refusal to allow GAO auditors to interview its JWST workers one-on-one, with assurances that their answers will remain anonymous. The interviews may well turn up news that JWST managers do not want to hear, but this can only benefit the program, not to mention American taxpayers, in the long run.