Complexity, Human Errors & Other Factors Delay Webb Telescope Launch Again, Now to 2021

Engineers conducting a white light inspection of the James Webb Space Telescope’s large mirror. Photo Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The most sophisticated and ambitious space-based observatory ever conceived by the human mind, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will not be ready to launch until AT LEAST Spring of 2021, according to a report this week by an Independent Review Board (IRB) established by NASA to assess the JWST program.

JWST is one of NASA’s most ambitious, complex and expensive projects ever, but has been plagued with problems and delays ever since it entered development in 1999. And while such projects of technological sophistication will always face various unforeseen challenges, JWST has faced so many that it will now launch a decade later than originally planned (at least), and will require the U.S. Congress to reauthorize the highly-anticipated mission, because it has now gone over its cost cap set by Congress in 2011.

The House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science moved to kill the JWST all together in 2011, citing numerous delays, cost overruns, and poor management, but Congress reversed the cancellation plans and instead capped additional funding at $8 billion—four times more expensive than originally proposed.

The new 2021 launch date adds nearly another billion dollars to the mission cost. The telescope’s new total lifecycle cost, to support the revised launch date and operations for 5 years after, is estimated at $9.66 billion; its new development cost estimate is $8.8 billion.

“Webb should continue based on its extraordinary scientific potential and critical role in maintaining U.S. leadership in astronomy and astrophysics,” said Tom Young, the chair of the review board. “Ensuring every element of Webb functions properly before it gets to space is critical to its success.”

One major problem which arose recently occurred during acoustic testing of the spacecraft element (the observatory’s combined sunshield and spacecraft bus) at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, where engineers subjected the spacecraft to extreme sound and resultant vibration which can be expected during the launch itself. Following the testing, detailed inspections showed that fastening hardware that hold the sunshield membrane covers in place had come loose.

“To address a risk that fasteners for sunshield membrane covers might snag the membrane, the fastening lock nuts were tightened only to be flush with their bolts,” notes the report. “Unfortunately, this compromised the locking mechanism, and after the test, loose hardware was found in the lower area of the spacecraft.”

This alone added a 6-month delay to JWST, at least, with much more testing still ahead.

Other examples of delays include human errors, which have had substantial cost and schedule impact, such as an incident where an improper solvent was used to clean propulsion system valves, because of a failure to check with the valve vendor to ensure the solvent would not damage the valves. The valves had to be removed from the spacecraft, repaired or replaced, and reinstalled.

“Another human-induced error was improper test wiring that caused excess voltage to be applied to transducers”, says the report. “The error resulted from an improper interpretation of a process step. The error should have been detected by the inspector, who did not inspect, but relied on the technician’s word that he had done the wiring correctly.”

JWST’s extreme complexity were also cited as factors contributing to the delay, with many “firsts” involved with its development, keeping in mind that – once launched – there is no rescue or fix possible if something goes wrong.

The report includes about 30 recommendations for moving forward with JWST.

“Despite major challenges, the board and NASA unanimously agree that Webb will achieve mission success with the implementation of the board’s recommendations, many of which already are underway,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“The more we learn more about our universe, the more we realize that Webb is critical to answering questions we didn’t even know how to ask when the spacecraft was first designed,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Webb is poised to answer those questions, and is worth the wait. The valuable recommendations of the IRB support our efforts towards mission success; we expect spectacular scientific advances from NASA’s highest science priority.”

A joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the JWST—NASA’s successor to the Hubble—will have been in planning, design, and development for over 20 years when it is finally launched atop an Ariane-5 rocket from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex at the European Spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana.

Once completely assembled, the JWST—with its 69.5 ft x 46.5 ft instruments-protecting sunshield deployed—will be the size of a Boeing 737 airplane. Hubble, in comparison, is about the size of a large tractor-trailer truck or bus. Webb’s 6.5-meter diameter primary mirror will also be bigger, much bigger. The telescope will have nearly seven times more light collecting area than Hubble, allowing for unprecedented infrared observations of distant objects from the dawn of the Universe some 14 billion years ago. Its mirror and instruments will capture images of the Universe and break down the spectra of incoming light to analyze the properties of galaxies, stars, and the atmospheres of planets beyond our Solar System.

You can read the full report by the IRB HERE.

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7 comments to Complexity, Human Errors & Other Factors Delay Webb Telescope Launch Again, Now to 2021

  • John Hilliard

    Mike,
    Good story, the JWST has had its number of problems, technical and cost, over the past few years. However, you must get it right before launch. I believe it is important to our future look into space. Thanks again

  • Dan Okrasinski

    I sure hope they can work out the problems in a timely manner and get it launched in 2021. At my age I am getting close to my pull date and want to see some JWT secret space phenomena before I get pulled off the shelf. Good luck and God speed to the JWT team.

  • John Hilliard

    Mike,
    Very good article. I believe the JWST is an important program for the US and the world even with the cost over run and schedule delays. You must get the technology right before launch. You do not want another Hubble Space Telescope problem on orbit that should have been discovered before launch if it was tested right. I think JWST will open more eyes into our solor system and is needed. Thanks again for your update.Keep up the good work. John

  • Tracy The Troll

    “The House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science moved to kill the JWST all together in 2011, citing numerous delays, cost overruns, and poor management, but Congress reversed the cancellation plans and instead capped additional funding at $8 billion—

    …..four times more expensive than originally proposed.”

    So it started out at $2 Billion and now is $8.8 Billion with development, launch costs and first 5 years of operation at $ 9.66 Billion… I certainly hope we can see the planets of the Alpha Centauri System …next door

  • Snuggs28

    I h ear nothing but excuses. I’d shelve the project if I had a say in Congress. Unaffordable.

  • I agree with Mike and John. Get it right before launch. There are no shuttle-type rescue missions available. The scientific gains are worth the cost, especially since the machine is already built.

  • Tracy The Troll

    Wait just a minute here….

    Could it be that this Space Telescope will “see” inhabitable planets…That is planets with observable intelligent development or at the least life? And if it sets in L2 and at $10B +/- … Wouldn’t it be the most important space asset the US has…proving life on other planets? Which would need protecting? Enter the Space Force and a lunar space station that will keep an eye on the moon and L2 set to go in service in 2022. Would anyone really be surprised if JWST is “delayed” until 2022?

    Can it really be that long before we have the technology to do a repair in L2?

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