Pandemic causes delay and cost increase for NASA’s Roman Space Telescope

10 mins read

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Roman Space Telescope has passed its critical design review, but the impact of the pandemic will delay its launch by several months and increase its cost.

NASA announced Sept. 29 that Roman completed its critical design review, confirming that all the design and engineering work for the space telescope is complete. The review allows the mission to proceed into full-scale assembly and testing of the spacecraft.

“After seeing our extensive hardware testing and sophisticated modeling, an independent review panel has confirmed that the observatory we have designed will work,” said Julie McEnery, senior project scientist for Roman at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. “We know what it will look like and what it will be capable of. Now that the groundwork is laid, the team is thrilled to continue building and testing the observatory they’ve envisaged.”

Roman, originally known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), is the next flagship astrophysics mission for the agency after the James Webb Space Telescope. It features a 2.4-meter mirror and instruments astronomers plan to use to study topics ranging from exoplanets to dark energy.

At the time of the mission’s confirmation in March 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold in the United States, Roman had a launch readiness date of no later than October 2026, although mission officials were hoping for a launch as soon as a year earlier. In the announcement of the critical design review, though, NASA said the mission is now scheduled to launch no later than May 2027.

That delay is because of lingering effects of the pandemic, which slowed work on the spacecraft and affected supply chains. “COVID has had a significant impact on Roman,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a Sept. 28 meeting of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC).

He said the pandemic created “inefficiencies” in work on the telescope as well as “huge supply chain impacts” that has pushed back the delivery its components. That resulted in a revision of the cost and schedule of the telescope, including the seven-month delay in the launch commitment date.

As for the cost, Hertz only said there had been an “appropriate addition of cost that matches that matches that seven-month slip in that launch date.” He did not give a specific figure, and a NASA spokesperson did not respond to a question about that revised cost Sept. 29. However, NASA’s Office of Inspector General reported in March that Roman’s costs would grow $400 million due to the pandemic. Roman had a total lifecycle cost of $3.9 billion prior to the pandemic.

JWST sticking to schedule, name

NASA officials also offered an update on the status of the James Webb Space Telescope at the AAAC meeting, revealing that the $8.8 billion spacecraft is on its way to the launch site in French Guiana.

“We are in transit to Kourou, having left the continental United States now,” Eric Smith, NASA program scientist for JWST, said at the AAAC meeting Sept. 29. The spacecraft is on a large container ship like those Arianespace uses for transporting launch vehicle hardware to French Guiana. “It’s business as usual for them.”

NASA had not previously disclosed that the telescope had left the Northrop Grumman assembly facility in Southern California. At the meeting the previous day, Hertz said only that JWST was now in its shipping container.

Project officials previously said they were sensitive about providing details about the shipment of JWST because of security concerns. Smith did not say at the meeting when JWST left port or its estimated arrival date in French Guiana.

The shipment, he said, keeps JWST on track for a Dec. 18 launch on an Ariane 5. A team is already in Kourou preparing payload processing facilities there to host JWST. That launch date will depend on exactly when the next Ariane 5 launch, currently scheduled for Oct. 23, takes place, he added, but noted the JWST schedule has 13 days of margin once it is at the launch site.

Smith also said that NASA has no plans to change the name of the spacecraft. A petition circulated in the astronomy community earlier this year called on NASA to change the name of JWST, named after the agency’s administrator during most of the 1960s. That petition cited allegations James Webb oversaw policies earlier in his career at the State Department to purge the department of LGBT employees, as well as one case involving a NASA employee while he led the agency.

Smith, asked about the status of a historical review NASA undertook to investigate those claims, offered a previously unreleased statement attributed to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson that the agency found no evidence to support renaming the telescope.

“We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope,” Nelson said in the one-sentence statement later provided by the agency. A NASA spokesperson added the agency didn’t plan to release additional details about that review, such as a report, because the historical review found no evidence to support the allegations.

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