On Wednesday, the chief of NASA’s science programs said the James Webb Space Telescope will not meet its current schedule of launching in March 2021.
“We will not launch in March,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the space agency’s associate administrator for science. “Absolutely we will not launch in March. That is not in the cards right now. That’s not because they did anything wrong. It’s not anyone’s fault or mismanagement.”
Zurbuchen made these comments at a virtual meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board. He said the telescope was already cutting it close on its schedule before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the agency and that the virus had led to additional lost work time.
“This team has stayed on its toes and pushed this telescope forward at the maximum speed possible,” he said. “But we’ve lost time. Instead of two shifts fully staffed, we could not do that for all the reasons that we talk about. Not everybody was available. There were positive cases here and there. And so, perhaps, we had only one shift.”
NASA and the telescope’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, are evaluating the schedule going forward. This will include an estimate of when operations can completely return to normal—Zurbuchen said telescope preparation and testing activities are nearing full staffing again—and set a new date for a launch. This schedule review should conclude in July.
“I’m very optimistic about this thing getting off the launch pad in 2021,” Zurbuchen said. “Of course, there is still a lot of mountain to climb.”
Yet another launch delay has long been suspected, but this is the first time a senior NASA official has confirmed it. A government report published in January found that there was only a 12 percent chance that the large space telescope will launch in March 2021. It is due to lift off on board an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
The Webb telescope, NASA’s follow-on instrument to the wildly successful Hubble Space Telescope, was originally due to launch about a decade ago, with a development cost of $1 billion. Since then, technical problems and delays have bedeviled the complex telescope. The January report also said the current estimate for Webb’s development cost, $9.7 billion, may be too low.
Building Webb has been difficult because its 6.5-meter mirror needs to unfurl itself once it reaches an orbit about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. This is an exceedingly complex process, and there are more than 300 single points of failure aboard the observatory. NASA has had a difficult time testing them all on Earth in conditions that mimic the temperatures, pressure, and microgravity of deep space.