The scientific community and the science-loving public have eagerly awaited the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope since NASA started making plans for it in the late Nineties, promising to replace the Hubble Space Telescope with the largest space telescope ever built. Most recently scheduled to launch in the spring of 2020, NASA officials announced on Wednesday that the space-based observatory will now launch on March 30, 2021, and will require another billion dollars. NASA officials say they’re 80 percent confident they’ll hit that target. At most universities, an 80 percent is a C+.
Despite officials’ repeated assurances that “Webb is worth the wait,” the tone of the Wednesday press conference was sheepish and did not inspire confidence that things are going well with NASA’s ambitious sunflower satellite.
“Make no mistake: I’m not happy sitting here, having to share this story,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told reporters. “We never want to do this. We always want to talk about the successes that we have. If you look at our inventory of missions, you see how many times we deliver missions below the cost and on schedule, and we’re really excited about this.” But despite his confidence in the future of the groundbreaking scientific instrument, the shadows of previous, very similar announcements hung over the event.
In 2003, NASA said it would launch the JWST in 2011. In 2011, the whole project was re-profiled to address problems that had arisen over those years, including the very important question of how to integrate the telescope into a spacecraft. The budget ballooned from $2.5 billion to $8.7 billion, and the planned launch date was pushed to October 2018.
Then, in September 2017, NASA announced that the spacecraft would launch in the spring of 2019 instead. A mere six months later, in March 2018, NASA pushed back the launch to spring of 2020. Now we’re here, with an optimistic launch date of 2021. Oh, and by the way, that launch date assumes no further delays.
Along with the launch delay, NASA announced the findings of an independent review board report aimed at identifying what has gone wrong and what needs to be done better. Among the factors the IRB identified as having delayed the JWST are human error, embedded problems in existing hardware, spacecraft integration, unrealistic expectations, and employee morale. The report includes NASA’s response to these concerns and how they will be addressed in the coming years.
The telescope, which scientists hope to use to glimpse light from the very beginnings of the universe, uses a huge mirror and sun shield to observe longer wavelengths of light than the Hubble Telescope, which it will essentially replace. Hubble’s light-gathering mirror is a little under eight feet in diameter, while the JWST’s will be over 21 feet across — a huge improvement for helping researchers gather faint glints of light from the edges of the universe and understand our cosmic origins.
This monumental hardware requires an sturdy spacecraft to carry it, and in recent months, reports of screws and washers rattling loose from the spacecraft during acoustic testing highlighted the problems with the telescope, which is being constructed by contractor Northrop Grumman. Shoring up these problems and figuring out how to get the whole thing into space will require more cash from Congress.
At last accounting, Stephen Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, tells reporters that the JWST’s new lifecycle cost to support the revised launch date will now be $9.66 billion. “This cost includes integration and tests, launch commissioning, and five years of operations, including some amazing science that we’re going to do,” he reports.
All in all, things aren’t looking good for the JWST. But NASA officials are trying to remain optimistic, even as they acknowledge how disappointing it is to run this far behind schedule and over budget. Hopefully it’ll all pay off with some dope space pics, though.