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Why NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is such a fiscal black hole

Why NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is such a fiscal black hole
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The announcement by NASA that launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is going to be delayed over another year, now May 2020, felt like déjà vu.

When the JWST was first proposed in 1997, it was supposed to launch in 2007 and cost half a billion dollars. Now the launch date is 13 years later and the cost is at least $8.8 billion. NASA will have to go back to Congress for more money if the huge space observatory exceeds previous cost caps.

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In the meantime, NASA is convening an independent review board that will examine the problems that have plagued the space based astronomy project. The board will map out the final testing and integration of the project and will present its findings to the space agency. After a NASA review, the report will be presented to Congress by the end of June.

 

The telescope is a worthy science mission. When it is finally launched on top of an Ariane 5 rocket, the JWST will spend 30 days traveling a million miles to an Earth-Sun Lagrange point, where it will begin its observations. The JWST will do everything from observing the afterglow of the Big Bang to imaging planets in other star systems. The telescope will be a worthy successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. 

So, why has the JWST exploded in cost, and why is its completion date being constantly delayed? One reason is that the space telescope is one of the most complex instruments humans have ever attempted to deploy in space. Its primary mirror, measuring 6.5 meters, will be folded inside the rocket faring and will unfold once the telescope reaches space.

The JWST also sports a tennis-court-sized sunshield. Because the JWST images distant objects in infrared, it must be kept very cold, hence it needs to be shielded from the light and heat of the sun. The sunshield will also be folded inside the rocket and will unfold in space.

The main problem with the space telescope is that, unlike the Hubble, it cannot be serviced after it is deployed in space. The JWST will be too far away, and in any case, no one possesses the spacecraft that can send either astronauts or tele-operated robots to fix problems or perform enhancements.

The ability to be serviced saved the Hubble Space Telescope from disaster. When the Hubble was first launched, a flaw in the mirror made it all but useless. A daring space shuttle mission performed fixes to the space telescope that restored its function and enabled a steady stream of scientific discoveries. Subsequent missions enhanced the Hubble and extended its operational life. What might have been a disaster was transformed into one of the greatest scientific triumphs in human history. 

However, the James Webb Space Telescope has to perform perfectly without outside intervention. The cause of the latest delay stems from the necessity to perform more integration tests of the space telescope’s various systems. Any design flaw, any manufacturing mistake, would doom the telescope to be an $8.8 billion piece of space junk. Testing has already uncovered a number of such problems, including leaky valves and tears in the sunscreen that occurred when it deployed. 

Therefore, a lesson must be derived from the JWST. The more complex a spacecraft, the more likely it will be to fail. The problem could be mitigated by finding a less challenging solution, such as assembling the JWST in low Earth orbit and testing it there before moving it to its Earth-Sun Lagrange point. The James Webb Space Telescope could have been designed to be serviceable, if not by human astronauts, perhaps by robots that could be controlled from Earth. If NASA and its international partners take the lesson to heart, fiscal disasters such as the JWST may be avoided going forward.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.