NASA expects to cover JWST launch slip with budget reserves

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WASHINGTON — NASA hopes to keep the costs of additional delays in the James Webb Space Telescope within the program’s existing reserves and thus avoid asking Congress for additional funding.

At a June 24 meeting of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, Eric Smith, program scientist for JWST at NASA Headquarters, said that while a new target launch date for the giant space telescope hasn’t been determined yet, the agency expected that the costs associated with that slip will be covered by existing budgetary reserves.

“The program has fiscal reserves, in addition to the schedule reserves, and right now we do not anticipate needing additional funding because we have money to pay for extra time in the schedule,” he said.

JWST exhausted its schedule reserve because of the slowdown in work caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The program still had nearly two months of schedule reserve when the pandemic caused work to briefly halt in March, then continue at a slower pace. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said June 10 that because of that slowdown, the mission will not make its March 2021 launch date.

Smith said NASA expects to set a new launch date in July after completing reviews, including examining how changes in work procedures required by social distancing protocols affect the remaining activities. “What has changed is the efficiency in which those tasks can be completed,” he said. That may include, he said, adding more schedule reserve beyond the two months that the program had in March.

He did not estimate how much the launch date will slip, but it is likely to be at least a few months. Before the pandemic slowed work on JWST, NASA was planning to put the telescope through a final series of acoustics and vibration tests in May and June. Smith said those tests are now scheduled for August.

Smith declined to say how much budget reserve the mission has remaining. “We can go a few months, several months past the March [2021] date and still have reserves to cover that,” he said.

JWST has a cost cap of $8.8 billion set by Congress after the mission’s previous schedule slip in 2018. Schedule overruns alone don’t require congressional approval, Smith said, but cost increases that exceed the cap would require reauthorization.

SOFIA cancels Southern Hemisphere campaign

Another NASA astrophysics mission affected by the pandemic, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), has canceled a planned deployment of the airborne observatory to New Zealand because of the pandemic.

In a June 23 presentation at the committee meeting, Naseem Rangwala, SOFIA project scientist, said the project worked for weeks on a way to carry out that observing campaign within the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, but ultimately concluded it was not feasible.

“The logistical, personnel and travel-related challenges remained, and we made a very difficult decision to cancel the 2020 New Zealand deployment,” she said. The project has for several years carried out such deployments, typically in the Northern Hemisphere summer, to conduct observations of celestial objects visible only from Southern Hemisphere skies.

She said the project worked with the New Zealand government and the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand on ways to carry out the campaign given the country’s restrictions on international travel, including a 14-day quarantine on any arrivals. Those restrictions have eradicated COVID-19 in the country, but ultimately were too much to overcome for SOFIA.

SOFIA, a Boeing 747 equipped with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope, has been grounded since March because of safety restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic. Earlier this month, project officials expressed optimism about resuming flights as soon as late June.

Those plans, which will require the approval of NASA, are still being developed, Rangwala said, using some of the planning that went into the canceled New Zealand campaign. “The project developed detailed plans and protocols for how to safely operate SOFIA within COVID-19 constraints,” she said.

She said the project now hopes to resume flights in mid-July from California. “We are making very good progress on getting the observatory returned to science flights,” she said.

SOFIA’s shutdown during the pandemic comes as the mission faces the threat of cancellation in the agency’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, as well as efforts to improve the efficiency and scientific output of the observatory. That has included canceling an instrument that was under development for SOFIA called the High Resolution Mid-infrared Spectrometer, or HIRMES.

“The HIRMES project was over-budget and over-schedule,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at the meeting. “They had unsolved technology problems and could not produce a believable plan to complete within a predictable amount of money, so we terminated the project for its overruns.”

Work on HIRMES-related technology will continue, he said, but will be funded by a technology development program and not the SOFIA project.