More delays expected for launch of Webb telescope


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NASA’s chief scientist admitted during House hearings this week that there will possibly be further delays in the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, now set for the 2nd quarter of 2019.

“At this moment in time, with the information that I have, I believe it’s achievable,” he said of the current launch window of March to June 2019, which NASA announced in September after delaying the launch from October 2018. However, he said an independent review “is exactly what we should be doing, and frankly I have directed the team to do just that in January.”

That review won’t start until January, he said, because of ongoing tests of unfolding the sunshade of the space telescope. Previous tests, he said, took much longer than anticipated, playing a key factor in the decision to delay the launch. An updated launch date, he said, would likely come in “January or February.”

Such an independent review was proposed earlier in the hearing by another witness, retired aerospace executive Thomas Young. “In my opinion, the launch date and required funding cannot be determined until a new plan is thoroughly developed and verified by independent review,” he said.

While it does make perfect sense to make sure everything is really really really ready before launch, that this telescope is already 8 years behind schedule and yet might still need more delays suggests that the whole project was managed badly, from start to finish.

The hearing also dealt with the cost increases NASA is experiencing for WFIRST. As is usual, it sounds like NASA’s buy-in approach there has worked, and that Congress will fork up the extra cash to keep that project alive, until it experiences further delays and more cost increases, when Congress will fork up even more money. Then, wash and repeat. The WFIRST budget is already up from about $3.5 billion to more than $4 billion. I predict before it is done it will have cost around $8-$10 billion, and not launch until the late 2020s, at the earliest.

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3 comments

  • Localfluff

    Horrible horrible to participate in these hearings and reviews. It’s not as if something good will ever come out of it. Best case is that it is delayed and over budget and the worst case is that it just blows up (without being able to blame an enemy on the other side of the world).

    I do not compare JWST budget as one can with the F9-budget with the Atlas V-budget. Because JWST is a unique instrument. A launcher is after all only a transportation tool for X tons of payload to orbit. One can do that sooner or later and more or less. But JWST is a one of a kind artifact. No one will reproduce this. Ever. Still, this mirror has to get up there someday in order to not become a household joke.
    “- Mommy! Why don’t I get another strawberry WUUAHH!”
    “- Honey, because NASA wastes your strawberry monies on the for ever grounded James Webb Space Telescope!”
    “- WUUAHH!”

  • Richard M

    “Because JWST is a unique instrument.” And an unprecedented one. Unlike orbital launch, there is not a market where you can pick up advanced space telescopes off the shelf. So one expects that it will be hard to project costs, and allowances must be made.

    In this respect, NASA’s political savvy has to be admired, at any rate. Even allowing for the unanticipated in developing revolutionary science platforms, they continually lowball these projects for initial approval by Congress, and gain that approval. And by the time they have to come back for more money, the sunk cost fallacy keeps the Hill on board to pay up for the budget surges. And it keeps working for them.

  • Edward

    Richard M wrote: “the sunk cost fallacy keeps the Hill on board to pay up for the budget surges

    The problem is not so much that Congress allocates more money to NASA as much as they do not authorize other newer projects. The NASA budget remains the same, but other science is lost due to the cost overruns. The real question is whether the science that we gain is worth losing the other science.

    Hubble returned some very good science and may very well have been worth the science that was not done or was delayed.

    New Horizons was funded because of the urgency of getting to Pluto before its atmosphere condensed onto the planet’s surface for the next couple of centuries, but what if another planetary mission had sucked up the funds that had been needed for New Horizons? We would have missed Pluto’s atmosphere for two centuries.

    What science have we already lost to JWST’s cost overruns? Will we get knowledge from JWST that is worth that lost science? How much better would it have been had these two space telescopes been managed well enough that they and the never-funded instruments could all have been funded?

    With WFIRST looking so bad this early on, I think we can expect it to be a financial and scheduling disaster, too. It may be time to scrap the current iteration and start from scratch.

    We should not be treating our Space Program as though it were a jobs program. We should insist upon getting value for our money. If that means that we have to cancel a JWST before it spirals out of control, then that should teach NASA that it needs better project managers. Unfortunately, Congress does not think that way, and probably never will. It is yet another way that they squander the talent and skills of the people they have at NASA.

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