For many folks at NASA, the mere mention of the James Webb Space Telescope is enough to warrant a series of cringes and head shakes. The project is one of the longest running and most expensive endeavors that the space agency has undertaken, and recent develops have added several more years to the “development” process.
The Webb telescope first hit the NASA scene way back in 1993 when it was first proposed.
At that time, it would have been built with a four-meter-wide mirror and used to observe infrared light in space. It also had an estimated price tag of $500 million. Over the next several years, the project changed to include a 6.5-meter-wide mirror and a price tag of $4 billion. Those subsequent years also brought about an actual launch date for the telescope—2007.
Needless to say, 2007 came and went with no launch, thanks to a laundry list of development hurdles. History would repeat itself with future launch dates in 2011 and 2013. Now, the Webb has cost taxpayers nearly $10 billion and recent tests have revealed more issues, pushing the launch date back once more.
The recent failures involved twenty screws falling loose during a vibration test used to simulate launch conditions. It’s imperative that the Webb be as “bomb-proof” as possible at the time of launch because, unlike the Hubble Telescope, once it reaches its final destination in space it won’t be able to be repaired. The Webb will end up about four times the distance from Earth as the moon.
The current issues can be traced to the large sun shade that will be used to keep the telescopes mirror cool when in direct sunlight. The shade is roughly the size of a tennis court. Twenty of the 1,000 screws used to hold the shade in place fell out during the testing phase. There were other issues involving a cleaning solvent used to clean the telescope’s thrusters and the wrong wiring was used in certain areas, resulting in too much voltage and ultimately putting a halt to future launch activities until the problem can be fixed.
The mistakes pushed the launch date back to March 2021 will cost an estimated $600 million. Congress now has to approve the continuation of funding for the telescope and many at NASA look at it as a do-or-die project. If they get it right, it could help lead us into a new age of space exploration. If the plug gets pulled, it would constitute a sizable failure for the space program and those who have devoted nearly 30 years to its development.