James Webb Space Telescope Launch Slips into 2021, Cost Overruns

Artist’s impression of James Webb Space Telescope. (Credit; NASA)

Costs Rise from $8.8 Billion to $9.66 Billion

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — The Independent Review Board (IRB) established by NASA to assess progress on its James Webb Space Telescope has unanimously recommended that development on the world’s premier science observatory should continue; NASA has established a new launch date for Webb of March 30, 2021.

A report issued by the review board addresses a range of factors influencing Webb’s schedule and performance, including the technical challenges and tasks remaining by primary contractor Northrop Grumman before launch.

Read the full report and NASA’s response at:

“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.”

The board also reaffirmed Webb’s significant complexity, incredible scientific potential, and importance to astrophysics. The report includes several recommendations for moving forward, some of which NASA has already initiated. The agency agrees with the review board’s expert guidance on decisive steps necessary to safeguard and complete the telescope’s development.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine sent a message to the NASA workforce Wednesday about the report. “Webb is vital to the next generation of research beyond NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It’s going to do amazing things – things we’ve never been able to do before – as we peer into other galaxies and see light from the very dawn of time,” said Administrator Bridenstine. “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.”

“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.”

In its report, the IRB found that technical issues, including human errors, have greatly impacted the development schedule.

The agency previously had estimated an earlier launch date, but awaited findings from the IRB before making a final determination and considered data from Webb’s Standing Review Board. The agency established the new launch date estimate to accommodate changes in the schedule due to environmental testing and work performance challenges by Northrop Grumman on the spacecraft’s sunshield and propulsion system. The telescope’s new total lifecycle cost, to support the revised launch date, is estimated at $9.66 billion; its new development cost estimate is $8.8 billion.

From detecting the light of the first stars and galaxies in the distant universe, to probing the atmospheres of exoplanets for possible signs of habitability, Webb’s world-class science not only will shed light on the many mysteries of the universe, it also will complement and further enhance the discoveries of other astrophysics projects.

The first telescope of its kind, and an unprecedented feat of engineering, Webb is at the very leading edge of technological innovation and development. At its conception, challenges were anticipated for such a unique observatory of its size and magnitude. Webb was designed with highly sophisticated instruments to accomplish the ambitious scientific goals outlined in the National Academy of Sciences 2000 Decadal Survey – to answer the most fundamental questions about our cosmic origins.

Webb will be folded, origami-style, for launch inside Arianespace’s Ariane 5 launch vehicle fairing – about 16 feet (5 meters) wide. After its launch, the observatory will complete an intricate and technically-challenging series of deployments – one of the most critical parts of Webb’s journey to its final orbit, about one million miles from Earth. When completely unfurled, Webb’s primary mirror will span more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) and its sunshield will be about the size of a tennis court.

Because of its size and complexity, the process of integrating and testing parts is more complicated than that of an average science mission. Once the spacecraft element has completed its battery of testing, it will be integrated with the telescope and science instrument element, which passed its tests last year. The fully-assembled observatory then will undergo a series of challenging environmental tests and a final deployment test before it is shipped to the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, the ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

  • Robert G. Oler

    a failing project being administered by a child…the Child Administrator cannot today tell you what day the thing launches or how much more it cost

  • envy

    If you’re blaming Bridenstine for the mess that is JWST, you’re WAY off base. This started long before he got there.

    And if anyone at NASA told you they know how long it will take or how much more it will cost, they are lying.

  • delphinus100

    Will we be able to say for sure how much development cost, even after it’s in place and operating?

  • Emmet Ford

    While it is true that the new NASA administrator is not particularly well qualified for his position, we can’t really pin this disaster on him, given that he’s just started the job. The obvious culprits are the project scientist, John Mather, the Goddard Space Flight Center and the primary contractor, Northrup Grumman.

    Mather got a Nobel Prize for something called the Big Bang. Not sure of the details. But he clearly sucks at project management. Bigly.

    They should all be made to pay a price for this disgrace. Public hangings until performance improves.

  • mattmcc80

    Replace the whole team doing the work. Loose screws? Slack cables? I’m just waiting to hear that some tech tripped and cracked one of the mirrors.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    He’s new, what logic are you using to pin this on him?
    This is just business as usual at NASA…or any government agency.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    It will be launching on an A64 by the time it is ready to launch. Assuming that NASA trusts the new European launch vehicle. Maybe, BFR/BFS or FH will launch it.

  • Tom Billings

    Congress wanted the funds in the pocket of JHU’s Maryland campus-run Space Telescope Science Institute, and didn’t much care how it gets there, or rather Maryland’s Senators didn’t. So, no we probably won’t, since the people in Congress doing favors for Mikulski still owe her till it launches.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    This is why you stair step your way to these complex projects with smaller scale flights over the 20 year period needed to do them. Then we’d have known when the big one would fly. JWST and ABL both started about the same time with similar ‘hard’ schedules and budgets, and both came in way late and way over budget. ABL was canned just after it sorta worked.

  • therealdmt

    Let’s just move on to the next one

  • Robert G. Oler

    Obviously the problems were there, when he showed up; but what has he done to change them? Nothing…he is a child

  • envy

    What did O’Keefe, and Griffin, and Bolden do to change them? The management decisions that created the overruns and delays were made long before JB got there.

  • Robert G. Oler

    nothing, that does not excuse the current person from doing something different…he is trying of course to make America great again

  • envy

    Doing what different, exactly? He can’t change the contract with Grumman. The telescope is already built and working, so cancelling the spacecraft would waste that.

  • windbourne

    It is amazing how private companies always save so much money, while the ”horrible” NASA keeps costing /s

  • windbourne

    Uh no. This is NOT business as usual by NASA. This is business as usual by businesses.

  • windbourne

    I am no fan of GOP/admin/wh. admin, but this is on previous admin(s) for picking the company. Chances are, the company was foisted on NASA, BUT it does not matter. One of the previous admins is responsible, not current.

  • Robert G. Oler

    the telescope is not built and not working.

  • Robert G. Oler

    the current child administrator is the problem for not fixing the issue…all he did was toss more money at it and extend the schedule

  • windbourne

    Robert, all new ppl deserve a chance to figure things out. Give him a year and then see where he is at. Let his actions speak for him regardless if you like his politics or not.

  • envy

    The Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) and the Optical Telescope Element (OTE) are complete and working in tests. Those are the actual telescope parts. The spacecraft bus and sunshield are not yet done.

  • envy

    What did you expect him to do? You have a better plan?

  • Robert G. Oler

    so the thing is not ready

  • Robert G. Oler

    oh thats to long, lets just start being critical now 🙂 LOL

  • envy

    The observatory (combination of scope and spacecraft) is not ready, no.

  • redneck

    Businesses that don’t have competition to keep them in line. The only businesses that operate this way are ones that are ‘protected’ from competition. In real business, pure greed means the competition eats your lunch.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    Yeah, I was wrong. Actually I’m trying to think of the last time NASA (or any other agency) went over budget and missed their deadline. Turns out, it’s actually never happened until now. who knew.

  • Search

    Don’t even suggest that to them – they’ll tack on another $1B and 3 years to recertify it for them. As it turns out JWST is compromised with a clunky folding mirror system so it could fit into Ariane because SLS and BFR/BFS weren’t yet conceived. All the more reason to cancel JWST now and cut your losses. This has become the telescope that ate SMD. All for something that wont last for more than 10 years by design (assuming it works).

  • Search

    Would that be your boy Bolden who administered over these overruns and is now conveniently no longer in his chair when the truth is revealed? LoL plank in the eye – look it up

  • Search

    More correctly by congressmen/business symbiosis that works the system to its own gain to the detriment of the taxpayer. There is no “D” or “R” – just swindle.

  • Search

    One opinion from Oler who thinks he knows anything. Keep blabbering lefty.

  • Search

    You must have a royal case of butthurt there. Whats wrong did you get your little feelings hurt because Hillary couldn’t been the buffoonish Trump?

  • Robert G. Oler

    Bolden was certainly not “my boy” and I was reasonably critical of his administration and management.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Like the SLS, the former Senator from Maryland made sure that JWST was fully funded for cost overruns. Bolden, was told how to spend the alloted money for it. He had no choice but to do what he was told by the Senate.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Congress is not going to let him do anything different.

  • MzUnGu

    Still money better spend than making Tang II on ISS.

  • publiusr

    I didn’t think the skycrane would work–so here is hoping this does launch. I don’t want to throw peoples work in the garbage.