NASA says delays likely for flagship missions

Webb telescope, Mars 2020 rover missions could be impacted

UPDATE: NASA is “suspending integrating and testing operations” for the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency said in a Friday evening press release. Launch preparations for the Mars 2020 rover continue. 

NASA today alerted its employees, contractors and fans to brace for likely delays to its science missions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The main purpose of the virtual town hall meeting with NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the Science Mission Directorate, was to discuss the agency’s budget request. But Zurbuchen began by addressing “the elephant in the room.”

“We are still evaluating the impact, but I want you all to know there will be impact, and there will be impact in all the domains or most of the domains that are there,” Zurbuchen said.

Zurbuchen said he’s fielded lots of questions internally about the James Webb Space Telescope, the $9.7 billion mission to soak up infrared wavelengths and peer back in time to the early universe. JWST is currently in a clean room at Northrop Grumman’s facility in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom yesterday ordered all but those in essential fields such as health care or the food supply chain to stay home.

“If NASA and international personnel required on-site for upcoming tests and deployments cannot be present as scheduled, that will lead to changes in our schedule,” Zurbuchen said.

Current plans call for JWST to be launched on March 30, 2021, atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. NASA was already re-examining that date after a January report from the congressional Government Accountability Office determined that Webb had about a 12% chance of being ready for the March launch.

Zurbuchen said NASA had reduced the number of technicians integrating and testing Webb in California even before Newsom’s order. He said further reductions are possible as NASA assesses how to respond to the restrictions.

As for the Mars 2020 rover, NASA employees at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the rover is being readied for launch, are “doing heroes work to keep us on track for a July launch,” Zurbuchen said. The agency is considering sending additional personnel from Armstrong Flight Research Center in California and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to speed up processing.

“Both missions are priorities but are very different as far as their situations and decisions that need to be made,” Zurbuchen said.

NASA’s Artemis program to launch astronauts to the moon in 2024 also could be impacted. A confirmed case of coronavirus at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi caused NASA to suspend work on the Orion crew capsules at the nearby Michoud Assembly Facility and on the first in a series of Space Launch System rockets at Stennis, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said yesterday in a blog post. The SLS technology must be proven in time to carry astronauts toward the moon in an Orion capsule in 2024, with the landing technique still to be decided.

Bridenstine did not say how the shutdown might affect the already tight deadline for Artemis, which the agency expects to cost about $35 billion over the next four years.

“We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce,” Bridenstine said in the blog post.

Earlier this week, NASA ordered its 17,000 employees to telework, with only “mission-essential” personnel allowed on site at its field centers.

NASA says delays likely for flagship missions