. The new launch date for the world’s “next great astronomy observatory” has been scheduled for March 30, 2021, after budget overruns and test issues has resulted in a string of unforeseen delays.
Nasa cited misplaced optimism as the underlying problem here – for an observatory of this scale, the slightest oversight can lead to untold issues. An independent review board set up by Nasa to ensure oversight concluded that there are “no small” problems on a beast of this size.
“The complexity and highly integrated nature of the observatory” mean that “a very small human error or test anomaly can impact the schedule by months and the cost by tens of millions of dollars,” the board wrote.
Not all problems on a telescope of this size are small, however: tears in the tennis-court sized sunshield, at the hands of contractor Northrop Grumman, were one of the reasons launch was delayed earlier this year, Nasa announced back in March, when launch was rescheduled for May 2020 after an initial due date of October 2018 was abandoned.
Since the beginning of the project in 1996, after multiple delays and expanded scope, its budget has exploded from $0.5 billion to $9.6 billion. This ballooning has added a further $800 million to costs, meaning Congress has to re-approve the spending increase if Webb is eventually to go ahead.
The new launch date in theory buys time for implementing all of the review board’s recommendations, which includes new reporting and auditing structures and other forms of risk mitigation. Webb underwent a major redesign during 2005, and has a host of setbacks after testing began in 2016.