James Webb Space Telescope: Additional Delays “Likely”

A non-partisan government office has issued a report warning of additional delays for the James Webb Space Telescope, which could pit the mission against its funding cap.

The U.S. Government Acountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan group that investigates federal spending and performance, has issued a report on the James Webb Space Telescope that has astronomers worried. “It's likely the launch date will be delayed again,” the report concludes — an ominous statement, given that any further delays could risk project cancellation.

James Webb Space Telescope

Artist's conception of James Webb Space TelescopeNASA

Last year NASA announced a delay in the telescope’s launch to sometime between March and June 2019. The 5- to 8-month delay came from problems integrating spacecraft components, especially its complex, five-layered sunshield, which must unfold perfectly when the telescope is deployed. Right after requesting the change in launch readiness date, the mission learned of further delays from its contractor, Northrop Grumman, due to “lessons learned from conducting deployment exercises of the spacecraft element and sunshield.”

The mission now has 1.5 months of schedule reserve remaining, the GAO finds. Delays during integration and testing are common, “the phase in development where problems are most likely to be found and schedules tend to slip.” The project has a total of five phases of integration and testing, and has made significant progress on phases three and four, with the fifth phase beginning in July.

James Webb Space Telescope schedule

Integration and testing schedule for the James Webb Space Telescope.U.S. Government Accountability Office

Webb, often called the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, would see the universe at infrared wavelengths, investigating everything from exoplanet atmospheres to the first galaxies. But the revolutionary telescope has had a troubled funding history. An original budget of $1 billion ballooned until in 2011 Congress capped its funding at $8 billion for development, with another $800 million set aside for operations over a five-year window following the telescope’s launch. Funding reserves and 13 months of scheduling reserves were built into the 2011 plan, but now it seems the mission is bumping up against its constraints.

NASA has issued a statement that acknowledges all of the work that has already been done on this immense undertaking, adding, “NASA looks forward to the mission's final integration and test phase now that the two major observatory elements (science payload and spacecraft with sunshield) are together under one roof for the first time.” The mission has its own review board and will be issuing a report in mid-April.

Read the full GAO report here.

9 thoughts on “James Webb Space Telescope: Additional Delays “Likely”

  1. Frank-Mondana

    I’m not sure the general public and the media are aware of the insanely difficult engineering challenges of this instrument. At least it seems that way as many comments and articles are usually in some form, “jeesh! Why don’t they just…”.
    So for anyone here who needs background.
    The size of the Webb makes it impossible to launch without it “folding up” to fit in any rocket. It’s too big for the Space Shuttle if this was an option. It has to assemble itself flawlessly.
    In the case of the segmented mirror it has to not only build itself but each segment has almost a zero tolerance in relation to the others.
    It has to do all this about a million miles away autonomously. Again, perfectly with no human crew. This also means no “rescue mission” and no maintenance for the duration of its mission.
    Those points are only a few of the issues that must be addressed and fixed before it’s even loaded on the launch vehicle.
    Obviously they don’t want another fiasco like the Hubble when it began service. Everyone involved with the Webb is eager to avoid that mess. The Webb is far more expensive and consumed massive resources. All of which would be wasted if all it does is sit there broken.
    OK, lecture done.

    1. Gary-TruckeyGary-Truckey

      Wow! Thank you for breaking it down for us! (Forgive the geek-speak, but you’re the Carter to my O’Neil.) I think that curious-minded Americans from both the Left and Right would join together and support additional funding. Heck! I’d love to see private donors from the entertainment sector (Discovery, Nat Geo, etc.) donate money in exchange for access for documentary coverage.

  2. Curtis42

    I think most people realize the complexities. I believe it’s the projects authors that don’t. When it was first proposed, oh so many years ago, I thought it crazy. Still do. It would be nice to have its capability, but the instrument is far too complicated to succeed. In other words, a dumb idea! All that money wasted, when a more reasoned project(s) would have given some return on investment. Unfortunately, it will fail. Far and away too many variables for an autonomous instrument.

    1. Don

      This is exactly why Webb will succeed, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. Sounds familiar, probably not for you. By the way history is full of naysayers proven wrong. Cheers!

    1. John999RJohn999R

      If I hear that again, I think I’m going to throw up. Without NASA, Space X would still be on the launch pad. I like Graham-Wolf’s reply, I share his realism when it comes to the extreme complexities of this mission and also understand what the JWST is capable of. I can understand why there are delays, NASA has only one shot at lifting this instrument into deep space and you damn well they want to get it right. I say take as much time as they need and spend the extra money, after all, we blew a billion a week during the Iraq war and what did that accomplish? Many people just don’t understand what the JWST will contribute to innovation, new discoveries and answer many questions while raising newer questions. The James Webb Space Telescope is the pinnacle of exploration and the age of astronomy, there is no other time in history where astronomy has advanced so quickly, the JWST will be inspiring and may encourage more young people to pursue the sciences as a career.

      I applaud what Space X has done and respect Elon Musk’s vision, but just to come up with a simplified response without knowing the whole story is short-sighted. I would venture to say that Musk and NASA work as a team and he depends on NASA for their incredible expertise and engineering accomplishments over the many years they have been around. NASA’s history is like part of my life experiences ever since I was a little kid and any thought of canceling this mission at this stage would be purely for self-gain with an ulterior political motive. Not like our government in the past, there are strange elements in place now that have an anti-science agenda. I ask why would anyone take that kind of position and I don’t want to express my opinions here why I think this is so. But, in a related matter, action has already been taken to diminish or defund the earth sciences, targeting the valuable work by the NOAA. If you analyze who those representatives are in Congress, you will recognize they are the Climate Change deniers sent there by their biggest donors in the oil, gas and mining industries. If you listen to their justifications it makes me wonder how in the hell can they look themselves in the mirror in the morning and believe they aren’t going to tell multiple lies as they rehearse their lobbyist prepped canned speech regarding why we don’t need the NOAA anymore. Strange how the Army Corps of Engineers don’t share their opinion, they believe Climate Change is a national security issue, but that was before any reference to the topic was forbidden by our ignorant leader, both publicly and written.

  3. Graham-Wolf

    Hi Monica

    The JWST is arguably several orders more complex and a lot more expensive than the HST that it will add to (if not totally replace).

    Like trying to compare a Model T, to a supercharged Shelby Mustang.
    I frankly don’t care HOW long it takes to get up there, nor how many MORE billions it’s gonna cost.
    Just get it properly completed AND safely up there in space, “please”!

    I’ll start breathing again, when THAT finally happens…

    Regards

    Graham W. Wolf
    46 South, Dunedin, N.Z.

    1. John999RJohn999R

      Well said Graham, you have my vote and if the JWST deploys successfully, I think any thoughts about delays and cost overruns will be forgotten once those first deep space images are downloaded and processed. To think it has the capability of looking back 13.5 billion years to image the early universe and other mind-blowing firsts it’s capable of. If only Einstein was around to see it. However, if something happens and I almost refrained from even mentioning it because I don’t want to jinx this unprecedented mission. We already know space exploration is complicated and certainly dangerous, but what I will find disgusting is the predicted political backlash and gaming that will occur if something doesn’t go right. I wish NASA my highest and best thoughts for a successful outcome and I hope they are recognized for the many years of very hard and dedicated work they put in to make this mission a reality.

  4. ant4142

    The JWST is the Essential next step in astronomical research. I don’t care how much it costs to get up and working. Perhaps a little less spent on the enormous US defence budget would ensure the funding of it’s success

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