NASA’s next flagship space telescope is delayed again


NASA has again delayed the launch of its next-generation space observatory, known as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the space agency announced today. The telescope now has a new launch date of March 30th, 2021. It’s the second delay to the program’s timeline this year, and the third in the last nine months.

“We’re all disappointed that the culmination of Webb and its launch is taking longer than expected, but we’re creating something new here. We’re dealing with cutting-edge technology to perform an unprecedented mission, and I know that our teams are working hard and will successfully overcome the challenges,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a video statement. “In space we always have to look at the long term, and sometimes the complexities of our missions don’t come together as soon as we wish. But we learn, we move ahead, and ultimately we succeed.”

The cost has also gone up again, meaning Congress has to take another look at the program

NASA pushed the launch of JWST, which is viewed as a more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, from 2019 to 2020 in March of this year. At the same time the space agency also convened an independent review board to assess the future of the program. Bridenstine announced today that the independent review has been completed, and that the board decided that the program should continue. The new launch date was also derived from the board’s findings and recommendations.

The review board said that the 2020 date picked this past March would have still been feasible if not for a recent hiccup during acoustic environmental testing of the telescope. The test, which was performed by Northrop Grumman, resulted in some “screws and washers” coming loose on the spacecraft. NASA confirmed during a press conference today that around 70 of these fasteners came lose during the test, and that “all but four pieces” have been discovered.

This particular delay from the Northrop Grumman test is costing NASA on the order of $1 million per day, the agency confirmed during the press conference. The review board said in its findings that Northrop Grumman should “establish corrective actions in processes, training, personnel certification, individual accountability and a robust testing, analysis and inspection process” to make sure the telescope doesn’t run into similar problems going forward.

Still, the board wrote in its findings that the “development of this telescope should move forward because of the exceptional potential and science insight the James Webb Space Telescope promises.”

With the new delay, NASA confirmed today that the JWST project passed a $8 billion cost cap set back in 2011. NASA now says it expects development to cost a total of $8.8 billion, and that the total cost (including five years of operation) of JWST will be around $9.66 billion. NASA is expected to receive flat budgets in the coming years, but the JWST team said it has enough room in this year’s budget to account for the short-term increase in costs. The project will need additional funds in 2020 and 2021, though, and so NASA will have to get those increases approved by the White House.

Going beyond that cost cap also means that Congress has to reauthorize the program. JWST team members said during the press conference that they have already submitted a report to Congress and plan to try to get the project reauthorized later this year in time for the government’s next appropriations cycle.

Asked whether the latest delay and cost increase means the JWST is at risk of running into opposition, Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said it would be “premature” to guess what Congress or the White House might be thinking. “I sat in every meeting with all the stakeholders, including appropriators or authorizers, and also our stakeholders in the White House,” he said. “Present in every one of these discussions is the belief that the science is really compelling and remains compelling as we go forward.”

JWST has been besieged by delays and cost overruns since its inception. The telescope was originally announced as a successor to Hubble in early 1996, and put into development in 1999, with a predicted launch as early as 2007. At the time, the total cost was estimated between $1 billion and $3.5 billion. In 2005, though, NASA upped the cost estimate to $4.5 billion, and the launch was pushed to 2013. Four years later, those numbers slipped to nearly $5 billion and a launch date of 2014.

In an attempt to get the schedule and budgeting under control, NASA reworked the planning for the telescope in 2011 and settled on a new launch date of 2018. That’s when the price tag for development was capped at $8 billion. But that extension wasn’t enough, because in September 2017 NASA pushed the launch back to 2019, and then this past March the agency announced another delay to 2020.

We want to take leaps. Otherwise we’re not NASA.”

Persistent cost overruns and delays like the ones JWST has suffered recently led NASA to set harder limits on the scope of future projects. With that in mind, Zuburchen was asked during the press conference today if NASA bit off more than it could chew with JWST.

“How big a leap is possible in a single mission? I think that’s a question that we’re always asking,” he said. “Make no mistake, we want to take leaps. Otherwise we’re not NASA.”


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