James Webb Space Telescope Slips Another 7 Months to October 2021

James Webb Space Telescope Slips Another 7 Months to October 2021

NASA announced today that the launch of the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will slip another 7 months due to technical challenges and delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The new launch date is October 31, 2021.  A bright spot is that the extra costs can be covered by existing reserves, so the pricetag will not grow.

JWST’s long history of cost growth and schedule delays spans more than a decade.  Most recently, in 2018 NASA commissioned an Independent Review Team led by Tom Young to take a hard look at the program.  The result was a schedule delay from October 2018 to March 2021 and a 10 percent cost growth from $8 billion to $8.8 billion for development ($9.663 billion if operations are included).  That breached a congressionally-imposed cap, but convinced of the telescope’s scientific value, Congress increased the cap to compensate for the overrun.

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Indications that the March 2021 launch date might slip again popped up soon thereafter, however.  In March 2019, Young’s IRT checked to see how NASA and prime contractor Northrop Grumman were implementing the IRT’s earlier findings and discovered reserves were being used more quickly than anticipated.  By November 2019, Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, hinted at another launch delay.  In January 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its annual review of the program and concluded there was only a “slim chance” of meeting the March 2021 launch date.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Work at Northrop Grumman’s California facility where the telescope is being integrated slowed dramatically as stay-at-home orders affected both company workers and NASA overseers from Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland where the program is managed.

Last fall, NASA had already decided to reassess the schedule in April and make a decision in May as to whether the launch date was realistic.  The pandemic added to the concerns.  Last month, Zurbuchen told an advisory group that a delay was inevitable.

NASA made it official today.  Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk told a media teleconference the new launch date, October 31, 2021.  JWST Program Director Greg Robinson told reporters that three months of the delay are attributed to COVID-19, two months to technical challenges that emerged as the contractor team learned more about how long it takes for processes like stowing the massive sunshield after deployment for testing, and two months to have sufficient reserve for anything else that might crop up between now and launch.  The whole of idea of cost and schedule reserves is to have money and time set aside for the “unknown unknowns” that occur in every development program.  Robinson said sufficient financial reserves were built into the revised cost estimate in 2018 to cover the cost of the new delay.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is a partner in the JWST program and will launch the telescope at no cost to NASA from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.  It assured NASA that an Ariane 5 rocket will be available in October 2021.  Robinson said the plan is to ship the telescope next summer, 13 months from now.  It will make the journey by boat. Once there, it will be integrated with the rocket.  He said they also have a one-month schedule reserve once they are at Kourou in case there are unexpected delays during processing.

JWST will study the universe in the infrared region of the spectrum, looking for exoplanets and trying to solve the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.  It is the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still operating after 30 years in orbit.  A major difference is that Hubble was designed to be servicable.  Five space shuttle crews visited Hubble and replaced instruments and equipment, so despite its age, most of its components are comparatively young.

JWST will not be in Earth orbit and is not designed for servicing.  Its destination is the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, one million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away.  Once it is launched, it is on its own, so everything must be perfect before it lifts off from the launch pad in Kourou.


This article has been updated.

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