James Webb Telescope Delayed Until 2020

James Webb Space Telescope

Artist's conception of James Webb Space Telescope
NASA

NASA officials announced today that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope would be delayed until approximately May 2020. This is about a year after the last delay that was announced, which had put the launch date between March and June of 2019. The delay had been foreshadowed in an independent government report issued earlier this month.

The exact launch window isn’t definite yet, though. NASA has heard from its own standing review board, whose report indicated additional time is needed, and now NASA is establishing an additional, independent review, which will assess the mission’s chance for success and nail down changes in cost and schedule. To date, the agency has spent $7.3 billion on Webb’s development. If the mission development costs go even $1 over the $8 billion maximum that Congress set in 2011, the project will face congressional reauthorization. NASA will report its assessment to Congress in late June.

Despite the mission’s enormous cost, cancellation seems unlikely (or maybe I’m just optimistic). After all, the flight hardware, the five-layered, membranous Sun shield, and the spacecraft bus are all complete. It’s just a matter of putting the observatory together, a phase called “integration and testing.” Problems often pop up in this phase and Webb was no exception.

The Problems

Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), outlined a number of technical challenges during a press conference with NASA officials.

For example, the complex Sun shield — which consists of five tennis-court-sized membranes that fold together to fit in the Ariane 5 rocket’s fairing — was torn during testing. After repairing seven tears in total, including two that were 10 cm long, engineers had to make changes to the sunshield’s storage and deployment to ensure that doesn’t happen again — the shield is crucial to allowing the telescope to remain sensitive to near-infrared wavelengths.

James Webb Sunshield

This 2017 image shows all five layers of Webb's sunshield in Northrop Grumman's clean room in Redondo Beach, California. The five membrane layers are each as thin as a human hair.
Northrop Grumman Corporation

The list also included some avoidable errors: For example, a transducer was incorrectly powered and had to be replaced, resulting in a three-month delay, and an incorrect solvent was run through the propulsion system, damaging valves and seals, which had to be replaced.

While issues often arise during integration and testing, NASA officials admitted that Webb's schedule for this phase was "optimistic."

To address problems and avoid future mistakes, NASA plans to work much more closely with contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems than it has been, overseeing progress and ensuring that milestones are met. That includes logistical changes, such as putting some permanent NASA personnel on location, as well as holding bi-weekly senior-level meetings with Northrop Grumman’s President and COO.

“We just want to make sure we know what’s going on on a daily basis,” says Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator. “That level of attention has a lot to do with how important this mission is to us.”

Top Priority

Webb is a top science priority within the astronomical community — many is the science paper that concludes with the necessity of obtaining Webb observations. The mission also represents NASA’s largest international space science project in U.S. history, including partnerships with the European and Canadian space agencies.

Once it’s finally launched, the 6.5-meter near-infrared telescope will orbit the Sun at the L2 Lagrange point, 1.5 million km farther out than Earth, a vantage point that will enable it to explore the cosmos as we’ve never seen it before. The telescope will peer back to the universe’s first stars and galaxies, seeing farther than the Hubble Space Telescope ever could. Astronomers will also use Webb to study nearby exoplanets, following up on planets discovered by the TESS mission, among others, characterizing their atmospheres, and looking for potential signs of life.

JWST vs. Hubble mirrors

A comparison of the primary mirrors on the Hubble and Webb space telescopes. Webb will also be looking at longer wavelengths than those probed by Hubble.
NASA

The Impact on Astronomy

The timing of today’s announcement is critical for astronomers, who had been preparing proposals for a deadline on Friday, April 6th. That deadline will now be moved “until no earlier than February 1, 2019.”

The delay in potential data and funding was met with understanding and some dismay in the community. “I was getting all jazzed up about the science that would come, which is one let down,” says Katherine Whitaker (University of Connecticut). “But the other for me is the fact that possible funding lines are delayed for quite some time. I have a graduate student who has been a great help in proposal planning and this likely means that this data can no longer be included in the road map for his thesis.”

“The data are so unique that this just can be picked up where I left off in a years time,” Whitaker adds, “but the more practical worries remain.”

There’s a broader impact on the astronomical community, too. “First there will be an impact of perception,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, SMD associate administrator. “Then there’s the impact of actual cost — each dollar can only be spent once.”

James Webb evolving launch date and mission cost

This plot chronicles the Webb mission's evolving predicted launch date and costs. Most of the change occurred in earlier phases of development, before a congressional hearing in 2011 locked down the schedule and costs. (Note that cost shown here includes development, which Congress capped at $8 billion in 2011, and operations.)
Francesca Civano; source: Wikipedia and sources therein

While Zurbuchen was hesitant to outline the impact on budget, because the full analysis on additional cost won’t be complete until this summer, he did emphasize that the Science Mission Directorate has performed below cost when you look at all space science missions together. Still, he added, the agency has learned important lessons on mission planning, which will undoubtedly affect WFIRST (whose funding is already on the line in the FY2019 budget proposal), as well as potential 2030s-era missions such as LUVOIR, HABEX, or Lynx.

“I’d rather not have this kind of call we’re having now; I’d rather have 100% success,” Zurbuchen admitted during NASA's press conference. Nevertheless, he added, “I want us to have ambition.”

26 thoughts on “James Webb Telescope Delayed Until 2020

  1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    I hope and trust that NASA, Northrup Grumman, and all the other contractors will do everything humanly possible to get this instrument into space in proper working condition. And I trust that there are enough smart people in Congress who understand that revolutionary technical accomplishments usually take longer and cost more than originally envisioned. Pre-launch mistakes can be corrected, but once JWST is in space, it will need to work perfectly. No do-overs.

    The elephant in the room is the complete disarray of NASA and every other department and agency under the Trump administration. Numerous mission-critical positions remain vacant more than a year after Trump was inaugurated. Robert Lightfoot has been NASA’s acting administrator for an unprecedented 14 months, and a couple of weeks ago he announced his plan to retire. Nobody’s in charge, and the surest way to influence policy is to be the most obnoxious loudmouth on FOX News.

    1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

      Hey, maybe we could contract this out to the European Space Agency. They’ve been doing pretty well with unmanned missions recently. JWST is already going up on a French rocket. Let’s just let ESA manage the whole show.

    2. m.pollock

      Blaming President Trump is a bit of a stretch here isn’t it? The original budget for this project was $0.5 billion and it was supposed to be in orbit in 2007. Now it’s eleven years late and $6.8 billion over budget (for the math-challenged that’s $6,800,000,000.00 – it would take someone earning $100/hour over 32,692 YEARS working 40 hours a week to earn that much BEFORE taxes). NASA is asking for another year – but they don’t know how much more money they need yet. At some point these boys and girls need to stop playing around and either admit defeat or launch the thing. I get it – sometimes a project doesn’t go as planned. If we put the brakes on this thing 10 years ago and continued on with some of the other projects that were displaced to make room for the Webb telescope we would be doing some real science right now, not just hoping we can. We could have revisited Webb as we gained more experience, using lessons learned to accelerate the eventual development. Given the repeated delays and 20x cost overrun it seems as though NASA has been devoid of mission-critical leadership for quite some time. I can guarantee if this wasn’t a ‘government job’ it would have been cancelled in 2007.

      1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

        Oklahoma Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine is unqualified to be NASA administrator. He has no experience with aeronautics or the space program. He has no administrative experience. He denies the reality of climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels has created a grave threat to our survival. Bridenstine is an ideological partisan hack. Even some Republican Senators oppose his nomination. NASA needs a competent Administrator. Unfortunately we are not likely to get one during the current administration.

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/11/01/trumps-nominee-for-nasa-administrator-comes-under-fire-at-senate-hearing

        1. Marcus Landry

          “Even some Republican Senators oppose his nomination.” That statement implies more than two. I know of one, Marco Rubio. Who are the others?

          “He denies the reality of climate change” Don’t you mean, Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming? Virtually no one denies climate change, and very few deny that there is an anthropogenic component to global warming. The rub comes when you believe that the change is dangerous. For that there is no “proof” outside of computer modeling. Have you ever heard Bridenstine say that there is absolutely no anthropogenic component to global warming, or have documentation to that effect? (Because that’s the words you’re putting in his mouth.)

          1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

            You’re right. Marco Rubio is the only Republican Senator who has publicly opposed the Bridenstine nomination. Senator McCain (a statesman with more common sense and moral integrity than many of his peers) expressed misgivings about the nomination, but did not unambiguously oppose it. Please forgive my misinformed exaggeration.

            Since NASA was founded 60 years ago, every administrator has been confirmed with overwhelming bipartisan support, even when there has otherwise been rancorous conflict between the President and the opposition party. Charles Bolden’s confirmation vote was unanimous. Now President Trump won’t submit a nominee who could garner a single Democratic vote, nor even unanimous support in the President’s own party.

            I won’t get into a hair-splitting debate about the reality and seriousness of climate change. Representative Bridenstine can defend his own record in that regard.

            Meanwhile, NASA and our entire federal government continue to spiral downward into chaos and dysfunction under a leader whose idea of governance is posting petulant tweets. These are sad times for our republic.

    3. 3.14Dave

      Anthony, What happened during the Obama Administration that vacated these vital positions? How does FOX news influence policy , Please be specific. Your statement starts by you confirming delays and cost over runs , but then you pass specific blame on Trump? I’m guessing this would be acceptable with Obama?

      1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

        Dave, all these people left after Trump was inaugurated. It is routine for political appointees to resign when the Presidency changes from one party to another. And many civil servants found they could not work for a Trump administration that tried to forbid NASA from pointing any Earth-orbiting satellite instruments toward Earth, in fear that they might find evidence of climate change.

        As for FOX’s influence on Trump:

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/01/17/the-fox-news-effect

  2. Jon-Groubert

    This is too much already. In fact, it was already too much a couple of years ago.

    At some point, the plug must be pulled. They’ve had 7 years to get this right, and they still can’t. At this point, they have to put aside their pride and say, “Y’know what? We don’t have the capabilities, the know-how to be able to do this. It’s simply beyond our grasp.” And then pull the plug and allocate the money, the personnel, the materials to something that actually is achievable.

    Since I can already hear you all saying, “NO! NEVER!”, then the alternative is that they have to attach a docking ring to this thing and just send it up already. Enough fiddling around. The Orion is supposed to be able to take us beyond the moon to near-earth asteroids, right? Well, here’s another destination it can go to – servicing this hunk of junk.

    Either send it up or shut it down. Enough is enough.

    1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

      Here’s an interesting IEEE Spectrum article about the NASA Inspector General’s 2012 investigation into JWST cost overruns and delays.

      https://spectrum.ieee.org/riskfactor/aerospace/satellites/hubble-psychology-causing-nasa-program-cost-overruns

      I’m glad we didn’t pull the plug on the Curiosity Rover, the Hubble Space Telescope, and pretty much every other groundbreaking NASA mission when those programs exceeded cost estimates and weren’t launched when originally planned. It’s also a good thing the Apollo program wasn’t scrapped after the Apollo One fired killed Chaffee, Grissom, and White. For that matter, if the Department of Defense abandoned development of new weapons that broke budgets and weren’t ready on time, our soldiers would still be going to war with flintlock muskets.

      1. mmaronati@aol.com

        TONY, even if I agree with you, I hardly can come upon a solution on Social Endeavors, like this one , where the subjects are made by humans which are sensitive to destroy easily the plans (some for unexpected act of god and some because it is easier to stay low and then say “sorry”).
        How do we create a strong budget control, to avoid relaxation in any aspects of investments when it becomes and extra burden to the society?
        This is what Jon initial hidden question is laid in his harsh wording! .. it is the freaking problem of everything that is Social and paid by gov because it is not their money.
        I Absolutely think that who is in astronomy is many folds ahead into MORALITY of SPEnDING than of any other public endeavor (weapons, infrastructures, aids ..etc ) which are sucking powers of inefficiencies… but HOW DO WE SET a “punishment” to avoid that “social workers” do not take advantage by the system!?!?
        THIS IS A BILLION $$$ question!!! I know ..
        BUT I am with you ! I adore the idea of powerful out of space scopes!!
        ciao and love
        marino

    2. habs2112

      The issue here is that virtually every project ever started goes over budget. Whether building a road,a hospital, or a home renovation. If you simply walk away they will not reuse one ounce of what has been created, the will simply 10 years down the road start from scratch and spend 15 billion to get what they want.
      Is this all abundantly frustrating…absolutely, but walking away accomplishes nothing. If every road that was started and went way over budget was stopped you would travel no-where. The overages should simply come out of the existing budget, with no new money allocated. Finish one thing properly before starting the next.

    3. GenacGenac

      I understand your skepticism, but on what do you base your suspicion that the success of this project is subject to any more scientific uncertainty than any other? If indeed “we don’t have the capabilities, the know-how to be able to do this… It’s simply beyond our grasp”, then I agree with you.

      You pose a good question, but seems implausible it took 8 billion and decades to figure out it just ain’t gonna work.

  3. The MythThe Myth

    Let’s get ONE THING straight here….space telescopes and going to Mars are/should be on the BOTTOM of the narcissism/ego list for the science community.

    The WORLD has MORE pressing matters. Over population, abuse of natural resources, WAR…the list is at times ENDLESS. Enough of the science narcissists NEEDING a OUTSIDE job to FULLFILL their needs of not having to go back to teaching…..because it soooooo booooorish. EGO’s need to be checked at the door.

    MANKIND will NEVER go to Mars….it’s a ONE WAY death-trip. SPEND time and resources on cutting down on the world population (when we get to 9 billion….it’s pretty much over) and abusing of our natural resources. IF we can get an EQUALIZATION on Earth….we MIGHT have a chance. Otherwise we’re dead in less than say….50 years.

    1. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

      Getting the JWT right is like getting the round-peg in the round-hole…compared to the problems you refer to. Where do you even begin? You can’t tell people to stop making babies, but you can design an origami telescope that unfolds itself in space. If we could spend $10B to somehow stabilize the world’s population, halt the unsustainable extraction of natural resources, and end warfare, congress would approve the expenditure on the first vote. But there is no clear path to solving said problems.

    2. GenacGenac

      I agree going to Mars is an ego trip, but the price tag on what we’re finding in deep space is cheap. Your falling sky hysteria is tired and uncompelling. At what point do you believe any spending on science, the arts, etc., runs afoul to social imperatives? From you blather I gather around 40 cents.

  4. levertal

    Monica,
    Thank you for professional, factual reporting on subject that is emotionally charged for many. The included plot of cost history was important and telling.

  5. Bruce-Jones

    This is becoming another NASA, government sponsored boondoggle, Far too many layers of expensive politics to accomplish anything. Politicians cannot, and do not design or build anything, that is the job of the scientists and engineers. I for one want to explore the universe, I want to get answers to all the whys and this would be a great tool to answer a couple more pieces in that why puzzle. But excuses do not get us there. Too many political meetings that accomplish nothing. Real goals and time lines need to be set and adhered to. Yes unforeseen things happen, and this should have been included in the project management timelines, and milestones, but this is beginning to appear like there has been no supervisory accountability. I come from an invent, design, test and put it into production background, and what I am hearing here smells like misguided management, dictated by politics. I want this JWT program to succeed and it must succeed, just as Mercury,Apollo,Voyager, the ISS and the MARS rover, and many others have, but lets also demand honest answers and accountability.

  6. TestFlight

    The 2020 date seems optimistic based on the track record of this project. A linear regression of year against launch date from the plot above results in a projected launch year of 2023.8 (R^2 = 0.88).

      1. Monica YoungMonica Young Post author

        Anthony, I love that you have an office pool — we do too! I’m the optimist over here: I’m betting “before December 31, 2021.” 🙂

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