NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope emerged from Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in December. ( Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

WASHINGTON — A decision on a new launch date for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, and announcement of any potential breach of its $8 billion cost cap, could come next week, an agency official said March 20.

At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee here, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said an independent review of the schedule for the flagship space observatory was wrapping up.

“We’re just in the last part of an independent review of the schedule,” he said. Zurbuchen announced plans for that review during a House Science Committee hearing on the status of the space telescope in December. At that time, he said he expected that process to be completed, and a new launch date selected, by February.

NASA announced in September 2017 that the launch of JWST, then scheduled for October 2018, would slip until a window running from March to June 2019. The agency has not updated that launch date and in some statements has omitted the March-to-June window, such as a Feb. 5 statement about the shipment of JWST’s optics and instruments from Texas to California that offered only a 2019 launch date.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, in a Feb. 28 report, warned that additional delays in the observatory’s development, caused by technical problems with the spacecraft and its deployable sunshield, were likely given limited schedule reserves. Additional delays, it added, made it possible that the telescope’s cost would exceed a cap of $8 billion established by Congress in a “replan” of the mission in 2011.

“Under the 2011 replan, Congress placed an $8 billion cap on formulation and development costs, but any long delays beyond the new launch window — which, as noted above, are likely — place the project at risk of exceeding this cap,” the GAO concluded in the report.

Zurbuchen didn’t state if he expected such a cost breach, but said that if it took place, it would require notification of Congress. That revised schedule, and potential notification, could come next week.

“Whenever you state a work breach, it’s a public event because you have to inform Congress,” he said. “My guess right now is that the announcement would be next week.” He added there were a number of “congressional interactions” currently regarding JWST as well as a final 2018 spending bill.

Despite the potential new cost and schedule problems, Zurbuchen emphasized the scientific importance of JWST at the committee meeting as he gave an overview of NASA’s broader portfolio of science missions. “Webb is another spacecraft and investigation that is bound to make history,” he said. “If you stand in the same room with any one of those parts of the spacecraft, you appreciate both the complexity and the importance of that telescope. It’s breaking records in every dimension.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...