NASA Chief on Tardy JWST Sensors: ‘News to Me’

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During a House Science space subcommittee hearing April 23 that largely focused on NASA’s asteroid mission plans, funding for the Space Launch System and Orion, commercial crew, and changes to NASA’s education program, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also was asked about a program that has faded from view recently: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Pressed by full committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) about reports of delays with JWST instruments, Bolden commented, “That’s news to me.”

Smith was referring to a report released April 17 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessing the state of various major NASA programs. “JWST is currently experiencing technical issues on the spacecraft and integrated science instrument module (ISIM) that have impacted the test schedule,” the report states. “[O]nly two instruments have been delivered for integration with ISIM and the other two instruments will be delivered at least 11 months late.”

That report raised new questions about the ability of JWST to meet its late 2018 launch date and stay within a budget of $8 billion through launch.

While the issues with JWST might be news to Bolden, they are not news for many people who have been following the program. At a JWST town hall meeting at the most recent American Astronomical Society meeting, in California in January, officials noted the delays with the instruments — the Near-infrared Spectrograph and Near- infrared Camera — but argued that they did not pose a risk to the program’s budget and schedule at that time. “We’ve been able to cover that with existing budget reserves and schedule reserves,” JWST deputy program manager Eric Smith said of the instrument delays. “There is no change to the launch date and no change to the budget.”

At that same conference in January, though, a key member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Vice Chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), expressed a lack of confidence that JWST was back on track, and said the committee would hold hearings on the status of the space telescope.