Launch Of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Is Delayed For Three More Years

Human error and expanding cost overruns have doomed the ambitious project.

the james webb space telescope's launch has been delayed
NASA via AP Images

Human error and expanding cost overruns have doomed the ambitious project.

The James Webb Space Telescope will not launch until 2021 — if NASA can avoid the problems that have continually delayed the doomed spacecraft.

As the L.A. Times reports, the mission has been so delayed by various problems (more on those in a few paragraphs) that an independent review board was convened to figure out what was going on, and to make recommendations. At the end of the day, the board recommended proceeding with the mission — but it will require congressional approval.

Congress had budgeted $8 billion for the mission. The three-year delay will add another $837 million to the mission’s price tag — and that’s just for building the spacecraft. The expected cost of the spacecraft when all is said and done is expected to be $9.66 billion, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“I’m not happy to be sitting here telling this story.”

The spacecraft was initially scheduled to launch in 2007. That was a decade ago, of course, and at one time the craft had been given a tentative launch date of 2020. That won’t be happening, either.

So, what went wrong?

Tom Young, who chaired the review board, pointed to several overarching issues.

Human Error: Several failures in development occurred at subcontractor Northrop Grumman, which is actually building the spacecraft. In one case, according to Ars Technica, one or more workers used a solvent to clean valves without first checking with the valves’ manufacturer. The valves were damaged and had to be replaced. In another case, no one bothered to verify that test wiring had been installed properly, exposing some components to excess voltage. In another case, fasteners for the craft’s sunscreen weren’t properly tightened, causing some of them to burst from the craft during simulated launch conditions, causing some to be embedded within the telescope itself. Two of them have yet to be located.

Embedded Problems: This is the industry term for problems that arise in development — problems which couldn’t have been expected until testing began. Of course, these problems were compounded by the aforementioned human error.

Other problems include NASA attempting things that have never been done before, the sheer complexity of the mission, and NASA’s failure to fully appreciate the magnitude of what they were undertaking.

What Will The Satellite Do?

When (if) the craft gets off the ground — literally — it will then be sent into an orbit a million miles from the Earth. It’s expected to probe the deepest regions of space for clues as to the origins of the universe, as well as to search for exoplanets — that is, planets orbiting stars other than our own Sun.