Northrop Balks at Agency’s Request To Interview JWST Workers

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WASHINGTON — James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) prime contractor Northrop Grumman last year denied what it has since characterized as an unprecedented request by the U.S. Government Accountability Office for one-on-one interviews with employees overseeing key elements of the program, insisting instead that the workers’ supervisors be present, the congressional watchdog agency said.

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.

Cristina Chaplain GAO
“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,” Critstina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, said in a prepared statement. Credit: SpaceNews

Faced with Northrop Grumman’s conditions for conducting the employee interviews, the GAO backed off, according to Cristina Chaplain, the agency’s director of acquisition and sourcing management.

The unusual episode was disclosed in a GAO report on JWST, which was released March 24 and came up that same day during a hearing on the program by the House Science space committee.

“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,” Chaplain said in prepared testimony.

Jeffery Grant, senior vice president and general manager of space systems at Redondo, California-based Northrop Grumman Aerospace, told SpaceNews after the hearing that the GAO wanted to meet with “junior- to mid-level employees” who lack experience in dealing with government auditors.

“My concern was these employees would be intimidated by the process, not that they wouldn’t be candid or anything else,” Grant said. “I don’t want 30 of my employees tied up for the time the GAO would want them tied up with this fear factor.”

“We heard that from them,” Chaplain said in a March 25 interview. “We’ve done this type of work before and the issue of intimidation or isolating people has never come up, or never been an issue. The one thing I’ll say though is they’re not use to this at Northrop. I don’t believe they’ve had this type of analysis done by GAO before.”

On that point, Grant concurred.

Jeffrey Grant Northrop Grumman
“I have never seen them [GAO] in my life where you would have an individual of the experience and maturity level that these folks are to be segregated in a room by themselves with GAO officials,” Jeffrey Grant, senior vice president and general manager of space systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace, said. Credit: SpaceNews
“I have never seen them [GAO] in my life where you would have an individual of the experience and maturity level that these folks are to be segregated in a room by themselves with GAO officials,” Grant told SpaceNews.

Rather than using the one-on-one interviews to assess the health of the JWST program, Chaplain said, the GAO will rely on a recently completed NASA review of Northrop Grumman’s $3.5 billion prime contract, the results of which the agency shared with GAO the day of the hearing.

Chaplain would not comment on the NASA review, which GAO is still parsing.

NASA spokeswoman Felicia Chou did not immediately reply to a request for comment about the contents of the internal report.

Meanwhile, NASA and Northrop Grumman officials insisted during the hearing that enough funding cushion exists to get the James Webb Space Telescope to the launchpad in time to blast off in October 2018 aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket. The flagship-class observatory, NASA’s designated successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is expected to cost nearly $9 billion, including five years of operation.

Northrop Grumman has a separate contract to build the cryogenic cooler for one of the JWST’s four primary science instruments. That work has proven difficult, and the cold half of the cooler is now projected to be delivered to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in June — about 16 months later than originally planned, and at roughly triple the original cost estimate.

June represents about a two-month slip compared with the April delivery date NASA and Northrop had penciled in as recently as December, but would be earlier than the worst-case November 2015 ship date GAO warned of in a report issued that same month.

JWST MIRI
Northrop Grumman has a separate contract to build the cryogenic cooler that will chill JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (above) in space. The cooler has fallen way behind schedule and will cost much more than originally estimated. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Gunn

The cooler must chill the JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument to around minus 270 degrees Celsius, about 70 degrees below the chilling capability of other space-certified cryocoolers the company builds, Grant said. On top of that, the cooler’s cold half is separated from its warm half — the latter houses a heat-generating compressor that pumps helium gas through the unit — by about 20 meters. The cooler also has to operate smoothly enough to not disturb the telescope’s sensitive imaging instruments.

“There’s an array of technical complexities in this cooler that make it far more difficult than coolers we have ever built before,” Grant said.

An engineering model tested last year demonstrated the ability to meet the cryocooler’s stringent requirements, Grant said, but the company has yet to work the kinks out of the assembly that houses the instrument’s cold half. The hardware still “is in its final stages of integration and test” in Redondo Beach, Grant said.

The latest GAO report on the JWST said unavoidable technical challenges are not solely to blame for the cryocooler’s late arrival. A share of blame goes to Northrop Grumman for “a manufacturing error and manufacturing process mistakes,” said the report, James Webb Space Telescope Project Facing Increased Schedule Risk with Significant Work Remaining. Chaplain submitted the 15-page document as her written testimony.

Northrop Grumman spokesman Lon Rains, in a March 23 email, said GAO “did a good, thorough job” with the report, and that the company had “no issues” with the watchdog agency’s findings.

Northrop Grumman’s cryocooler contract runs through March 2016 and its value since 2011, the year the JWST was formally restructured by NASA, has grown to $150 million, NASA acknowledged in December.