The James Webb Space Telescope – Delayed Again

Oh no, not again. The JWST project already infected with the government virus “Stratospheric-Cost-Overruns” has been delayed yet again — this time by the unforeseen effects from a global pandemic triggered by a microscopic biological virus.

But the science will be spectacular once it is operational! As a near- to the mid-IR telescope, the JWST can look farther back in cosmological time than any observatory before. Its 6.5m-diameter mirror, made up of eighteen hexagonal mirror elements, will be able to find the first stars, study exoplanets and debris disks of protoplanetary systems, search for building blocks of life, and map the evolution of galaxies from birth to their current stage. JWST’s mirror will be 5x larger in area than Hubble’s. Depending on the instrument that will be deployed at the focal point, JWST observes specific wavelengths. The JWST will be orbiting Earth at the Lagrange Point L2, a near-stable orbit location, influenced by the Sun and Earth’s gravitational forces. Unlike Hubble, orbiting at 500km, this location has distinct observation advantages but also makes it unsuitable for any repair or maintenance missions.

Timeline JWST Development

Year Planned Launch Budget ($s) Reason for Delay
1997 2007 0.5Bn
2002 2010 2.5Bn Re-design
2006 2014 4.5Bn Changes to integration and test plans
2010 Mission Critical Design Review (MCDR)
2010 2015-2016 6.5Bn Independent Comprehensive Review Panel
2015 Assembly of Mirror Segments
2016 Start of Extensive Testing
2017 2019 8.8Bn Sunshield ripped during practice (2018)
2020 Oct 2021 10Bn Coronavirus

What plagues every major NASA project? Complexity, repairs, and additional testing. Something will inevitably go wrong; the more complex a project is, the cost overruns affect all other subsystems and project milestones through a domino effect.

With 344 single points of doom-failure, one can see how continuous individual testing and integrated systems testing can propel costs stratospherically. E.g., the segments of the 6.5m mirror have to unfold like the elements of a hand fan, but in space. The 12x folded sunshield has to unfurl like a gigantic beach umbrella, in space.

In a Government Accountability Office report from January 2020, the most significant challenges identified were in the form of integration and testing. Bolts that did not meet the required stress limits were used; grounding straps came loose during vibration testing; actuators that help unfurl the sun shield did not fire, and the telescope would be without protection. The 12x folded sunshield area of almost 300 sq.m protects the IR observation from ambient heat interference by keeping the telescope to a temperature below 50 Kelvin.

The most significant non-technical point of failure is the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science. It already planned on canceling funding for JWST in 2011, when $3Bn had already been spent. Only through intervention from the American Astronomical Society, editorials, and Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, the committee decided to cancel its canceling.

Last, if you want to play Bingo with taxpayers’ funds, feel free to print, and play, the below hexagonal bingo card.

JWST – Delay and Operational Anomalies Bingo

JWST – Delay and Operational Anomalies Bingo

If you have a few minutes to spare, this time-lapse of assembly shows the complexity of the assembly process: