Put “James Webb Telescope launch” into your search engine and you’ll be flooded with links, some reaching back to the ‘scope’s first proposed launch date in 2010. The delayed launch of the space telescope is a running theme in the space community, even though we all know it’s going to be worth the wait. So nobody will be surprised by this latest development in the story of the world’s most anticipated telescope.
The current official launch date for the JSWT is March 2021, and NASA says that launch date is still happening. But a report from the Government Accountability Office suggests otherwise. It all has to do with the intricacies of planning and executing a project of this magnitude and complexity, and how NASA budgets its time.
The JWST was originally planned as a replacement for the Hubble, and was named the Next Generation Space Telescope. That was in the late 1990’s and the cost was projected to be around $500 million in the initial proposal. But that cost grew and the project was delayed. In 2011, Congress even threatened to cancel the whole project because it was way over budget and plagued with delays. But in November of the same year, Congress reversed the cancellation. They also capped the James Webb’s budget at $8 billion at that time.
2009 was a long time ago now, in terms of budgets and planning cycles. The project teetered on the brink in 2011, but now it’s full steam ahead. But even if the project is back on track since Congress hesitated in 2011, it’s still an understatement to say that there’s not much confidence in launch dates.
The new report from the Government Accountability Office is the latest twist in this telescopic tale. In typical neutral government speak, the report says “Problems discovered during integration and testing caused multiple delays that led NASA to re-plan the project in June 2018. Now estimated to cost $9.7 billion, the project’s costs have increased by 95 percent and its launch date has been delayed by over 6.5 years since its cost and schedule baselines were established in 2009.”
The report also points out the progress made by NASA and Northrop Grumman, the main contractor for the JWST. They note that since their last report in March 2019, the project has made significant progress. That progress includes “completing testing of the observatory’s individual elements and integrating them together in August 2019.”
In a complex and sophisticated project like the JWST, there are reserves built into both the schedule and the budget. These reserves provide the flexibility needed to complete the project. But at the same time as the report acknowledges progress, it also points out new problems that have sprung up, and that means NASA has had to use more of the schedule’s reserve time to deal with those problems.
Much of the reserve time was used up dealing with two components that transmit science data back to Earth. This early use of reserve time has taken a toll on the project. As of October 2019, NASA had already used up 75% of their reserve time. For this and other reasons, the report says there’s only a 12% chance of NASA meeting the March 2021 launch date.
The report, and the JWST project itself, is full of enough dates and analyses to set a project management nerd’s heart aflame. In a complex project like this, NASA establishes milestones not only for the launch, but for scheduled analyses. This is how they monitor the health and progress of the project.
The results of those scheduled analyses sometimes change the timeline, sometimes they don’t. In October 2019, there was a cost analysis, and also what’s called a “confidence level analysis.” NASA uses a 70% threshold for their confidence level. That means they won’t set a launch date unless their analysis shows a 70% chance of meeting it.
Currently, NASA is sticking with their 2021 launch date, but the GAO report says that there’s only a 12% chance of meeting that data. Move the launch date to July 2021, the report says, and there’s again a 70% chance of meeting the date.
As part of ongoing reviews, NASA and Northrop Grumman have found ways to recover some of the schedule reserve time. But reviews have also identified some new problems:
- Northrop Grumman found that some of the bolts used on the JWST were deficient. They may not be strong enough, and there are 501 of them on the telescope. Right now they’re determining if they need to be replaced or not.
- During vibration testing, grounding straps for the momentum flaps came loose. The flap counteracts vibrations, which are obviously bad for a space telescope. It needs to be repaired before other systems can be tested.
- A non-explosive actuator did not fire as planned. There are 180 of these actuators on the JWST, and there’s redundancy in the system. But the failure of even one of the actuators could cause serious problems for the mission.
- They’re re-evaluating some membrane detention devices that may not be robust enough to withstand the pressures from launch and from the new fairing ventilation design.
If this sounds bad, it kind of is, but it’s also expected. As the report makes clear, “Our previous work on major NASA acquisition programs found that integration and testing is the phase when challenges are most likely to be found and schedules can slip.” So if problems are going to crop up, the JWST project is at the stage where that’s expected to happen.
The complexity of the project itself is behind all these delays. While that’s frustrating for the space community, who have seen launch dates missed more than once, it’s part of the territory. There are no other telescope projects as complicated and multi-faceted as the JWST. However, there are also no other telescope projects with the same power and capabilities of the JWST.
The JWST promises some tantalizing insights into exoplanets and their atmospheres. It’ll look back in time to the early Universe, when the first galaxies formed only a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang. And it can peer into circumstellar disks to watch as planets form around their stars.
The space community knows the story of the Webb so far, so there’s no need to recount the entire tale. This report is the latest chapter, and its contents suggest that there may still be delays ahead. But it’s the potential that has people excited, and it makes all these delays tolerable.
Astrophysicists tell us it takes a million years for a photon to travel from the center of the Sun to the surface. It looks like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is following its own torturous path to completion. But one day, it will be launched, that’s for certain.
Then we can commence waiting again, to see if it unfolds properly, and takes its place in history.
- Government Accountability Office: Technical Challenges Have Caused Schedule Strain and May Increase Costs
- NASA: JWST Status
- Universe Today: What Will the James Webb Space Telescope See? A Whole Bunch of Dust, That’s What