This is probably one of the least surprising announcements to come out of the coronavirus pandemic.
During a virtual meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, made an announcement. He said there’s no way the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will meet its target launch date of March 2021.
Already on a tight timeline, work on the telescope has slowed during the pandemic.
The JWST has run the gauntlet of delays and ballooning budget problems like no other telescope before it. It was first proposed in the late 80’s/early 90s, as the eventual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Initially it was called simple they Hi-Z telescope, for High Redshift. That name was a nod towards the telescope’s power to look at distant and ancient galaxies, and to probe the beginnings of the Universe.
But over the years, the project’s cost, and the time required to complete it, both grew.
The original budget for the JWST was $1.6 billion, but over the years the estimated cost to complete the project had reached $5 billion. In July 2010 the telescope passed its Critical Design Review, a measure of the project’s technical merit alone.
Then the budget jumped again, for a new total of $6.5 billion. At that point, the US House of Representatives put their foot down, passing a bill that removed necessary funding for the JWST. But there was pushback. The project had already spent $3 billion, and about 3/4 of the hardware was already being built. The House reversed their decision, and the JWST was back on track.
But the launch date kept slipping. While some pointed to mistakes and errors as the cause, and there was some merit to those points, the overarching complexity of the JWST demanded more time.
Nothing like the JWST had ever been built before.
So through more twists and turns during the last decade, the telescope project persisted. Most recently, a launch date of March 2021 was set.
While we’ve waited for that date, we’ve watched the device come together.
We’ve watched it be moved around the country, from facility to facility, as the project reached milestone after milestone. We’ve watched as personnel tested the unfolding of its mission-critical heat shield. We’ve watched as masked, gowned, and gloved technicians fussed over the telescope in clean rooms. We were getting so close, and as time went on, a list of scientific observing targets for the ground-breaking telescope grew and grew: the Universe’s first galaxies, the circumstellar disks where planets form, the heart of molecular clouds, and the atmospheres of distant exoplanets. And more.
This latest delay seems like no surprise now. In fact, it would be remarkable if the coronavirus pandemic had no effect on a project of this complexity. And that’s what’s happened.
Recently, NASA Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen spoke at a virtual meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board. “We will not launch in March,” said Zurbuchen. “Absolutely we will not launch in March. That is not in the cards right now. That’s not because they did anything wrong. It’s not anyone’s fault or mismanagement.”
It’s all because of the coronavirus. Zurbuchen pointed out that although nobody on the JWST team contracted it, the virus was active nearby. And that affected the amount of work done on the project.
“This team has stayed on its toes and pushed this telescope forward at the maximum speed possible,” he said. “But we’ve lost time. Instead of two shifts fully staffed, we could not do that for all the reasons that we talk about. Not everybody was available. There were positive cases here and there (in the surrounding area, not on site). And so, perhaps, we had only one shift.”
That March 2021 launch date was probably optimistic anyway. A report from the Government Accountability Office said there was only a 12% chance of meeting that date.
The JWST’s prime contractor is Northrop Grumman, and they intend to do another schedule evaluation, to see where things stand. Staffing levels have almost returned to normal, and when this review concludes in July, we should have a new launch date.
But even though the March 2021 launch date is no longer valid, Zurbuchen still expects to launch the telescope in 2021. “I’m very optimistic about this thing getting off the launch pad in 2021,” Zurbuchen said. “Of course, there is still a lot of mountain to climb.”
The JWST is a very ambitious project. To perform its ground-breaking infrared observations, it has to travel out to LaGrangian Point Two, about 1.5 billion kilometers (932 million miles) away. During its journey it’ll deploy its mission-critical heat shield, which is folded up to fit in the nose-cone of its launch vehicle, an Ariane 5 rocket. The segments of the telescope itself will also fold out.
Once it’s out there, it will be on its own. Unlike the Hubble, which did its observing from Low Earth Orbit, the JWST is out of reach. There’s some talk of being able to visit it for servicing, but there are no firm plans and no spacecraft to do it. Former NASA Associate Adminstrator for Science John Grunsfeld suggested that a robotic fueling mission might be possible after 10 years, to extend the life of the telescope. And scientists and engineers are pushing for all future telescopes to be serviceable. We’ve all seen how effective and long-lived the Hubble Space Telescope has been, thanks to servicing missions.
But for now, the JWST gets one chance to deploy itself properly.
If it doesn’t, that’ll be a big blow for space science, and for NASA.