Spaceflight Insider

JWST exceeds cost cap, launch delayed to 2021

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

The James Webb Space Telescope, in development for the past 22 years, is now scheduled to take flight on March 30, 2021. Known for its numerous delays and cost overruns, the JWST appears to be in the final stages for its flight atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana.

A report issued by NASA’s Independent Review Board (IRB) which was embraced by the space agency itself, unanimously recommended that the mission should be allowed to progress.

“Webb should continue based on its extraordinary scientific potential and critical role in maintaining U.S. leadership in astronomy and astrophysics,” said Tom Young, the chair of the review board. “Ensuring every element of Webb functions properly before it gets to space is critical to its success.”

Delay and cost overruns for James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: Grant Wembly via Twitter

Delay and cost overruns for James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: Grant Wembly via Twitter

Citing scientific reasons to not cancel the project, representatives continued defending the JWST despite it having becoming a money pit and a black eye for the U.S. space agency – as well as a target for cancellation.

“The more we learn more about our universe, the more we realize that Webb is critical to answering questions we didn’t even know how to ask when the spacecraft was first designed,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Webb is poised to answer those questions, and is worth the wait. The valuable recommendations of the IRB support our efforts towards mission success; we expect spectacular scientific advances from NASA’s highest science priority.”

Known initially as the Next Generation Space Telescope, the estimated costs for the mission were placed at around $500 million, once Northrop Grumman became the prime contractor, the mission’s cost increased to $825 million. If it launches on the most-recently issued date – the telescope will have cost some $9.6 billion.

A post made on Twitter by Grant Trembly, an astrophysicist with the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics provided a graph detailing the program’s delays and increasing costs (left).

In 2010, the science journal, Nature described the JWST as the “telescope that ate astronomy.” On July 6, 2011, the United States House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science made an effort to cancel the JWST. At that time, $3 billion had already been spent and some 75 percent of the spacecraft’s hardware had been produced. The committee noted that the project was “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.” The JWST was allowed to continue with a budget capped at $8 billion something that NASA has admitted will be breached.

Despite the long delays and ballooning costs, NASA Public Affairs Officer, Dwayne Brown, opened Wednesday’s teleconference with the statement that “Webb is worth the wait!” This was a recurring theme throughout the June 27 teleconference.

Human errors, lack of experience, complexity, excessive optimism were cited as examples as to why the spacecraft has been repeatedly delayed. In the last decade alone, the mission has been slated to launch in 2018 (this date was given in 2011 and the cost of that delay alone is estimated at costing $1 billion), 2020 and now 2121. In fact, the JWST has seen no fewer than 11 launch delays. NASA representatives told SpaceFlight Insider that, despite the 25 years since the program was conceived, that the loss of trained personnel was not an issue.

The 2018 to 2021 launch delay was described as being caused by five factors: 1). human errors 2). embedded problems 3.) lack of experience in areas such as the JWST’s Sunshield 4). excessive optimism 5). systems complexity

Some of the issues caused by human error included the use of incorrect solvent in the cleaning of propulsion valves, test wire mistakes that caused excessive voltage to be applied to transducers and fasteners for the Sunshield being improperly installed. It was noted by the Associated Press’ Marcia Dunn that during one particular test, the one involving the fasteners that some 70 pieces were lost – with two of them still remaining within the telescope.

Dunn’s assessment of that test was confirmed by Young. He also noted that all but four of the pieces lost have been discovered and that two of those NASA could not “uniquely say that they have been.” (discovered – and, therefore, are likely still within the telescope somewhere)

James Webb Space Telescope insignia. Image Credit: NASA

“Make no mistake I am not happy sitting here having to share this story. We never want to do this, we always want to talk about the successes that we have and if you look at our inventory of missions you see how many times we deliver missions below the cost and on schedule,” said Zurbuchen in response to Dunn’s question. “We’re really excited about that…we’re part of this team that has created this problem we’re in, of course, Northrop (Grumman) is part of this, but we have oversight of this, we take responsibility as well as we go forward and that’s the only way we’re going to bring this over the finish line, together.”

It was mentioned during Wednesday’s teleconference that these issues could have been avoided with relatively simple fixes and caused a delay of about one and a half years and some $600 million. 

NASA has now not only breached the cost cap – but the schedule as well. Congress will now have to authorize this increase during the next cycle of appropriations.

“The cost cap that we were under from Congress has been $8 billion dollars for development, so that includes the development of all the hardware integration, test, launch and six months of commissioning, so that was the $8 billion dollars for all of that,” Young said. “Given the delay of the launch and the recommendations from the IRB – that will add another $800 million dollars to the development cost.”

With the ever-growing expense of the JWST leaving questions as to what the actual amount of the program was, SpaceFlight Insider reached out to NASA to gain a clearer understanding as to what that amount was and received the following reply:

NASA has completed a replan that determined a total life-cycle cost to support the March 2021 launch date of about $9.66 billion; this cost includes integration & test, launch, commissioning, and five years of operations and science costs. The development cost estimate (the cost through commissioning) of $8 billion would increase to $8.8 billion.

While other NASA initiatives have been cancelled after billions of dollars had already been spent on them (such as the Constellation and ARM programs), the agency does not appear to be cutting its losses on JWST anytime soon. This amount does not include the expense paid by NASA’s partners on the project, the European and Canadian Space Agencies.

Video courtesy of NASA




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

$9Billion over run…..NINE BILLION!!!

Throw every Northrop Senior leader in prison for treason, cut off every subcontract, and get some people involved who care about success instead of sucking down 14years of cost overruns.

The state of US contracts is absurd….and sad. Northrop said they could do it for $500M, hold them to it. Take back the $9B and demand a telescope. Lock them out of bidding on other contracts until the goods are delivered.

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