NASA again delays launch of James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope during recent processing at Northrop Grumman’s Redondo, Beach, California, facility. Image: NASA

NASA is delaying launch of the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope for another seven months, from March 2021 to 31 October due to work stoppages during the coronavirus pandemic, lessons learned during earlier processing and to allow additional time to handle unexpected problems.

NASA managers say the launch delay will not add to JWST’s price tag thanks to already approved funding reserves that analysts believe will cover costs incurred during the extended down time.

“Based on current projections, the program expects to complete the remaining work within the new schedule without requiring additional funds,” Gregory Robinson, JWST program director at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. “Although efficiency has been affected and there are challenges ahead, we have retired significant risk … over the past year.”

The James Webb is the most expensive science spacecraft ever built and one of the most complex, leading to steady cost growth and multiple delays since the observatory was first proposed in 1995. Then known as the Next Generation Space Telescope, the observatory was projected to cost between $500 million and $1 billion. Launch was expected around 2005.

In July 2018, NASA announced the total life cycle cost of JWST in support of a March 2021 launch date had grown to about $9.66 billion, including the cost of launch aboard a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket and $800 million to cover five years of operation.

But NASA and Northrop Grumman, the JWST prime contractor, were forced to stop work on the observatory earlier this year due to the COVID pandemic. Based on the pace of earlier processing, NASA had already planned a schedule reassessment, but the study was delayed by the pandemic. The agency announced the launch delay on 16 July.

“The factors contributing to the decision to move the launch date include the impacts of augmented safety precautions, reduced on-site personnel, disruption to shift work and other technical challenges,” according to the NASA statement. “Webb will use existing program funding to stay within its $8.8 billion development cost cap.”

Robinson told reporters COVID impacts accounted for about three months of the seven-month delay. Two months was added based on revised estimated of how long specific tasks will take to complete based on earlier experience and a desire to add in a bit of cushion for unexpected problems.

Building on the achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb features a 21.3-foot-wide segmented mirror and four state-of-the-art cameras and spectrometers designed to collect infrared light emitted from the very first stars and galaxies to light up after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.

It also is expected to shed new light on the nature of dark matter and the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe and play a key role in the study of exoplanets and their atmospheres.