JWST Mission Confident of March 2021 Launch Tony Gets a Call From NASA

At a town hall held on the first day of AAS meeting, NASA program managers and scientists express confidence that the James Webb Space Telescope will launch as currently scheduled in March 2021. Also, I got more feedback from my JWST reporting, this

3690 Views | Published on 15th Jan, 2020

Hello Space Fans and welcome to the first Space Fan News of 2020! This year marks the ninth year that I started posting this news series. It all started with the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 2011 and continues to this day. In this episode, at a town hall held on the first day of AAS meeting, NASA program managers and scientists express confidence that the James Webb Space Telescope will launch as currently scheduled in March 2021. Also, I got more feedback from my JWST reporting, this time from the Public Affairs Office at NASA. Stick around.

Now that the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society is behind us, let’s take a look at some of the stories that came out of the proceedings, most notably, the latest on the JWST mission. During the town hall both NASA and Northrop Grumman expressed optimism that the long overdue and way overbudget space telescope will launch in March of 2021.

Eric Smith, the program scientist for JWST at NASA HQ said that the testing is going very well and 2019 saw many important milestones successfully achieved. The telescope is completely assembled and has seen it’s sun shield deployed once and right now the entire spacecraft is being folded back into its launch configuration.

Workers are also currently replacing two electronics units that failed during testing last year. One unit was the command telemetry processor and it malfunctioned during environmental testing but engineers had problems duplicating the errors they were seeing and so decided to just replace the unit.

The second box that failed was a traveling wave tube amplifier used in the spacecraft’s communications system and they are currently replacing that one too.

Another problem they are working on right now concerns residual pressure within the payload fairing of the rocket, they are worried that fairing separation could “over-stress” the sunshield membranes. Tests on recent Ariane 5 launches confirmed that there was a higher residual pressure than the sunshield was designed for.

To address this, vents in the fairing are being redesigned and will be tested on Ariane 5 launches that are already scheduled to go up in early 2020 to see if that mitigates the extra pressure.

Moving on, coming up this year, 2020 will see more important milestones in the mission: the sunshield will undergo another a final set of deployments as well as some vibration an acoustical testing that will simulate the launch itself.

After that, everything will be packed up and shipped from Southern California where it is now to Kourou, French Guiana where it will be prepared - finally! - for launch on an Ariane 5 rocket.

Also at the town hall, Scott Willoughby, vice president and program manager for JWST at Northrop Grumman said that “All of the work that’s planned in front of us is very well understood. If everything goes as planned, the schedule is very much sufficient to get us there.”

Wolloughby also said, “2019 was as successful of a year on this program as you probably could have imagined in the history of it. I think that’s a great foretelling of 2020.”

Jeff Foust from Space News also reported that Greg Robinson, the JWST program director at NASA Headquarters, is also optimistic about staying on schedule. “Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll take this baby over to Long Beach and put it on a boat and send it to Kourou,”

All of this optimism is tempered by one concern: the schedule margin is getting tight: there are only two months of schedule reserve left in the budget. Every project has a reserve of money that they call on to pay for unforeseen events like government shutdowns, project delays, equipment failures and things like that, but it appears that JWST has only two months of that reserve left even though we are over a year from launch time.

Still, even with the tightness in the reserve, JWST manager say that because there’s been lots of really good progress in 2019 and they haven’t experienced any major technical issues during recent testing.

But smaller problems like the electronics boxes I told you about having to be replaced cut into the reserve.

Now it should be said that most missions expect to use up their reserves as the launch date approaches, and in the past there were concerns from the Independent Review Board from last year who warned that the mission appeared to be using up the schedule reserve at a higher-than-expected rate but mission managers said that the high rate of reserve use was to address problems they felt were behind them now.

Robinson cited the recent deployment of the sunshield having been almost error free as an example that most of the big stuff is behind them now.

So it looks like everybody working on JWST has started to look towards getting ready for launch. While there may be some problems, no one expects anything major but if there is anything major, then things could get bad and we could be looking at another delay.

So fingers crossed everyone, we’ve all waited for a long time for this thing, let’s hope the barge doesn’t sink or the spacecraft falls off - that would suck.

Alright, so while I’m on the subject of JWST, I’ve been a little surprised at the reaction I’ve been getting from official JWST channels. On the one hand, it’s great that people are watching, on the other, it’s a little unnerving. I need to be more careful about what I say and how I say it.

So I got a call from the NASA Public Affairs office about my last JWST video where I chided NASA for its role in the delays and cost overruns and that was prompted by an even earlier video I made that went off on Northrop Grumman about its handling of the mission. I’ve put the links to those videos in the description box but let me now forward to you what I was told by Felicia Chow, NASA’s PAO and Eric Smith the aforementioned program scientist for JWST at NASA HQ, wanted to correct me on a couple of issues.

First off, remember that I mentioned that NG had complained that not all technology usage was their choice, there were heated arguments about what hardware could be used and some of it was mandated by NASA and overruled possible NG choices.

Eric Smith told me that it’s not uncommon for NASA to recommend parts to use but there is always a lot of discussion that goes on and in the end everyone agrees that something will or won’t work. So let me be clear, with every discussion, no matter how heated, at no point has anything been used in building the James Webb Space Telescope that wasn’t agreed on by everyone.

So while there may have been heated discussions about what parts to use, this isn’t an unhealthy thing to do. Sometimes the contractor wins, sometimes NASA wins, but in the end there is always enough discussion that everyone has agreed to move forward. There hasn’t been a time when NG has said that it wouldn’t certify the spacecraft if we have to use a part that NASA is forcing on us. In the end, all parties agree on what parts to use and why they are used and there is nothing going on JWST that anyone feels is subpar or not the right way to go.

Re-watching my video I could see how I left the impression that fights occurred and in the end, someone was forced to capitulate against their better judgment - that’s not how those meetings went and I want to clarify that point: what’s going on JWST is what everyone agrees should be going on it.

I also said that Greg Robinson, the program director for JWST at NASA HQ testified before the House Science Committee, he didn’t. What I was actually referring to was a presentation he gave to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee where he talked about the state of the schedule for JWST, not the House Science Committee - my mistake.

If you’ll recall though what I was referencing with those comments was the bonus giveback that was pledged by NG if anything went wrong with the mission. NG can do what it wants with it’s money - the bonuses they’ve won are theirs, but from the government’s perspective, Eric Smith told me that under extreme circumstances, the government can try to ‘claw back’ some of those bonuses but what they can’t get back are costs of the mission. If they tried to get back some of the costs, then Northrop Grumman would be doing something for the government for free which NASA cannot accept.

So let’s be clear, we aren’t talking about getting back costs, my understanding is that if anything happens to JWST, NG has said it will give back some or all of the bonuses it has received, not the costs. But it’s important to make the distinction and Eric wanted to be sure I made that clearer: NASA cannot try to get back any of the actual costs, only the bonuses. I think what NG are trying to do is show they have some skin in the game and show they understand the importance of getting the mission right the first time, which was the spirit of those comments.

But Felicia said, boy that would be awesome and it would be great if they’d put that down on paper and Eric was not able to confirm that anything had been agreed to be given back or would be given back but he wasn’t entirely sure.

So I’ll close this video out with a summary of some comments I made to them about the anxiety level that many of you have expressed over what happens if JWST doesn’t deploy or fails. I told them that there is some real emotional stress out there that this thing may not work on the first go and what a tragedy that would be and Eric responded by saying that it’s important to remember that one of the reasons this is taking so long is the testing.

He said that there is no doubt that this project is bold and ambitious but the level of testing that JWST is undergoing is equally unprecedented. There isn’t a person at NASA that doesn’t get it that this has to work the first time, so they are testing like crazy. So I want to say to you, NASA knows about our anxiety - they get it and are doing the only thing they can-test like crazy.

Eric also said that the meeting I referenced in my last video - the one about the go/no-go for JWST - was held in late November and was an internal meeting called Key Decision Point D (KDPD), it’s the formal demarcation of the end of construction and the beginning of integration and testing. NASA never really issues press releases on KDPD’s and JWST did pass it and testing continues.

The next big thing will be Launch environment testing in the Spring and Eric said, for him, that’s the next big thing in the mission because at that point, if anything falls off or has any problems, it will be a big deal.

Soooo. This has been an interesting experience for me, one of my first forays in to actual journalism, something I’m obviously not trained in it, but learned a lot from this experience. I want to thank all of you for sticking with me for all these years and I’m excited about 2020.

SFN is made possible by Deep Astronomy Patreon Patrons and others who contribute through Deep Astronomy dot com so thank you all.

Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!

Reference:
https://spacenews.com/jwst-remains-on-schedule-for-march-2021-launch/




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