NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the space agency’s long-delayed and over-budget jumbo space observatory, won’t launch until March 30, 2021, NASA’s administrator announced on Wednesday.
The agency also announced that the cost to build the JWST would be $8.8 billion, blowing through an $8 billion budget limit set by Congress last year. The space telescope, which will unfold a tennis court–sized observation mirror in space to view the universe’s most distant galaxies, was originally intended to launch in 2013 at a cost of $4.5 billion.
The total cost of building and running the spacecraft through 2026 is now $9.66 billion, according to NASA. But the European Space Agency has already spent an additional $500 million on the mission. The European Space Agency is responsible for launching the telescope on an Ariane 5 rocket.
“The complexity and difficulty cannot be overstated,” said aerospace executive Thomas Young, who headed an independent review board established by the space agency in April that recommended the new launch date. “Too much optimism was built into the schedule.”
If NASA fixes human errors and embedded problems in the design of the space telescope — such as the difficulty of combining a massive sunshield with an unfolding 18-mirror observatory — then there is an 80% chance that the spacecraft will actually launch in 2021, according to Young.
All of JWST’s parts — telescope mirrors, sunshield, and body — are built, but putting them all together has been the latest source of problems for the mission. Most recently, fasteners and other hardware became loose in the sunshield during a vibration test of the spacecraft. As many as four fasteners still haven’t been found. In a separate incident, the wrong solvent was used in cleaning valves, damaging equipment. Delays in launching the spacecraft cost NASA about $1 million a day, according to Young.
The delay is “a bigger slip than we had anticipated,” astronomer Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona told BuzzFeed News. "What gives one some expectation of success is that all the instruments are built and we are running out of places for problems to turn up."
A recent contretemps in the astronomical community developed over a call for scientists to delay planning future space missions until JWST launched. And Congress fought off a Trump administration bid to kill off a separate, smaller space telescope at NASA to help pay for JWST’s extra costs. Rieke said she expected that the added JWST costs would lead to more delays for that smaller telescope.
The report made 32 recommendations, while reaffirming that the mission should continue because of the value of the science it promises: views of the earliest stars and of planets forming around nearby stars. NASA fully accepted 30 of the report’s recommendations.
“Make no mistake, I’m not happy sitting here telling you this,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters on a briefing about the delay. He deflected criticism from spacecraft contractor Northrop Grumman, saying, “We are part of the team that caused this problem and we are going to have to solve it together.”
Blowing the budget cap for JWST means that Congress will have to vote to reauthorize completion of the telescope, which has already drawn ire from lawmakers. NASA plans to ask for the authorization and extra money in February.
"Program delays and cost overruns don’t just delay the JWST’s critical work, but they also harm other valuable NASA missions, which may be delayed, defunded, or discarded entirely," Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chair of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. His committee will hold a hearing to address the report next month. The witnesses will include NASA administrator James Bridenstine and Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush.
"I expect to see progress on keeping projects on budget and on time,” said Smith.
This post has been updated with comment from Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and astronomer Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona.