Is the James Webb Space Telescope Worth the Wait?

Billed as the successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) promises to bring about a new era in astronomy. This mammoth orbiting observatory is designed to answer some of the greatest and deepest questions astronomers have about the Cosmos.

However, this project, originally conceived in 1996 for launch around 2007, has faced a series of delays and setbacks, and the telescope remains on the ground. Some members of Congress, and even the general public, are starting to ask if Webb is worth the cost and the delays. Scientists, on the other hand, are eagerly awaiting the launch with bated breath.

“The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory when it launches in 2021. Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it,” NASA officials explain.

Dream Big or Stay Home

Following an initial budget estimate of one billion dollars, costs have skyrocketed to $9.66 billion, while the launch date has slipped by more than a decade. Technical errors, equipment failures, and the government shutdown early in 2019 all combined to push back the launch of this next generation space telescope.

For much of the time Webb was being developed, NASA was aiming for launch in October 2018. In September 2017, that date was pushed back to spring 2019. In March 2018, launch was again delayed, until May 2020. Then, in June 2018, NASA rescheduled launch for March 2021.

One major hurdle with lifting Webb off the ground is the massive scope of the project. Engineers at NASA, faced with scientific challenges that have never before been reached, needed to develop 10 new technologies before construction could begin on the telescope. These included advanced shielding to protect the observatory from the heat of the Sun, as well as new software to keep Webb pointed at its target.

“Among the new technologies are: near and mid-infrared detectors, sunshield materials, microshutters and wavefront sensing and control. All inventions, with the exception of wavefront sensing and control are ‘cryogenic,’ which means icy cold. It’s important for these pieces to be kept cold because the telescope will be reading heat and light from stars, and heat from instruments would get in the way of a good reading,” NASA officials explain.

The researchers, engineers, and contractors of NASA have a can-do attitude, which can be one of their greatest strengths. It was this zeitgeist which allowed the American space agency to put astronauts on the Moon less than a decade after the project was initiated. The mindset that anything is possible also led to saving the Hubble, as well as the astronauts aboard Apollo 13. It is challenging, when an agency is faced with the prospect of developing great science like Webb proposes, to take into account the inevitable failures and setbacks which are bound to come up over time.

Cryogenic testing has been going on at NASA since the days of the Orbiting Astronomical Observatories, the first predecessors to Webb, as shown in in this 1964 photo. Image credit: NASA

“The James Webb Space Telescope is the most ambitious and complex astronomical project ever built, and bringing it to life is a long, meticulous process. The wait will be a little longer now but the breakthrough science that it will enable is absolutely worth it,” said Günther Hasinger, Director of Science at the European Space Agency (ESA), following the most recent launch delay.

It’s Harder to Hit a Moving Target

One challenge facing NASA is the constantly-shifting priorities of presidents and members of Congress. Unlike China, the American space program, in general, is beset by scientific targets that shift with each passing administration.

As a prime example of this, NASA was recently directed to land human beings on the Moon once more, by the year 2024. While many people within the agency are confident of making this goal, the challenges are quite extraordinary. Meanwhile, several other countries and private organization are also planning their own human journeys to our planetary companion.

A video showing the launch and deployment of the JWST. Credit: Northrop Grumman

The JWST was first officially proposed to NASA in 2001, by the National Academy of Sciences, as the Next Generation Space Telescope. This massive undertaking was declared a top priority for the academy, and a one billion dollar budget was proposed for the program.

Cost overruns are not new, or unexpected, at NASA. The Hubble Space Telescope, designed to cost $200 million, finally tallied out at $1.2 billion. Only after launch did researchers find it had reached orbit with a faulty mirror that needed correcting.

“NASA project managers are often overly optimistic about the effort required to mature critical technologies and frequently underestimate the cost and schedule reserves needed to address known and unknown risks, optimistically assuming that most risks will not materialize. However, when they do they result in significant cost, schedule, and performance problems,” Paul Martin, NASA Inspector General, wrote in June 2018.

A video comparing the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes. Credit: James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Northrop Grumman, the main contractor for Webb, has been a frequent target for critics of the delays and cost overruns. Human errors have certainly contributed to problems getting Webb off the ground. One person selected an improper solvent to clean a fuel valve, while an incorrect set of wires pushed the wrong voltage into a system during a test. Just prior to another key test, the wrong fasteners were installed on the sunshield cover, resulting in another delay.

Grumman has a large team of workers dedicated solely to building the JWST, and delays at any point in the project can result in large cost overruns. The Virginia-based contractor is constructing Webb on a cost-plus contract, meaning that cost overruns are charged to the government. Other organizations (such as SpaceX) ferrying supplies to the space station are paid on a fixed-price basis. However, Grumman officials have stated they would have been unable to make a profit on Webb if they were required to develop the telescope on a fixed-price contract.

On Further Reflection…

The Webb Telescope will, almost certainly, rise from Earth one day in the coming years. Assuming a successful launch, the observatory will head more than 1.6 million kilometers (one million miles) from Earth, to the L2 Lagrange point, above the nighttime side of our planet. There, it will join the Planck Space Observatory and the Herschel Space Telescope.

Sporting a mirror eight meters (25 feet) in diameter, the Webb Telescope will be capable of collecting images and data from the first stars and galaxies which came into being. This instrument will unravel some of the deepest mysteries of all about the earliest eras of the Cosmos, utilizing the largest mirror ever sent into space.

Once Webb opens its magnificent golden eye to space, the observatory will study the oldest, most distant objects in the Cosmos in infrared light, and assist in the search for exoplanets which could be home to extraterrestrial life.

Like so much in life, as well as science, blame for setbacks cannot be placed on the shoulders of a single person or organization. We have seen, time and again, how NASA delivers science unparalleled by any other organization in the world.

Once the James Webb Space Telescope launches aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, the science it delivers will revolutionize our knowledge of the Universe. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too much longer for the most-advanced telescope in the history of the world to open our view of the deepest reaches of the Cosmos.

One thing that is certain — when the science starts pouring in, it will be worth the wait.

The Cosmic Companion

Exploring the wonders of the Cosmos, one mystery at a time

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Written by

James Maynard is the author of two books, and thousands of articles about space and science. E-mail: thecosmiccompanion@gmail.com

The Cosmic Companion

Exploring the wonders of the Cosmos, one mystery at a time