More delay, cost for NASA’s next-generation space telescope

Enlarge  The mirror of the James Webb with its individual segments unfolded into

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.

NASA announced Wednesday that the James Webb Space Telescope will now fly no earlier than 2021. The delay means the observatory's overall cost is now expected to reach almost $10 billion. This exceeds a funding cap set by Congress in 2011, and NASA will have to ask for reauthorization in the next budget cycle.

Officials blame worker error for at least part of the escalating costs and delays, dating back a decade.

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.

"Webb should continue based on its extraordinary scientific potential and critical role in maintaining US leadership in astronomy and astrophysics", Tom Young, the chair of the review board, said in a statement. The valves were damaged and had to be replaced. "Another human induced error was improper test wiring that caused excess voltage to be applied to transducers", it said.

Young said the mistakes could have been avoided with "simple fixes that were not implemented", but ended up costing the project $600 million. Its sunshield, the size of a tennis court once unfurled in space, is needed to keep the infrared telescope cold and is a major risk area, he said.

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What just happened? The highest priority project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate and the largest global space science project in USA history has been delayed for the umpteenth time. It will operate from a point 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth, unreachable by astronauts like the low-orbiting Hubble - launched in 1990 with a misshapen mirror - was.

"I'm not happy to be sitting here telling this story."
"It is going to do fantastic 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". "We always want to talk about the successes that we have", said NASA's science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen.

Zurbuchen said NASA should have been providing better oversight and is part of the problem along with Northrop Grumman. "We will get there with Webb", he said. "Webb is poised to answer those questions, and is worth the wait".

Northrup Grumman acknowledged that problems have put the project behind schedule. The company said it has changed the way it works to prevent future issues.

"We will not sacrifice quality for schedule. Mission success is our number one priority", spokesman Tim Paynter said in a statement. NASA fully accepts the intent of all the IRB's recommendations (italicized), has already started implementing a lot of them, and NASA's response (bold) to each is provided below. This comes after a delay announced only a few months ago that pushed the launch date to 2020, and makes today's announcement the third delay in less than a 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. Now it's March 30, 2021.

When the telescope was first conceived in the late 1990s, it had a projected cost of around a billion dollars and a launch date in 2007. It was named after NASA's second administrator, who spearheaded the Apollo moon landings.

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