The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2018, will let NASA peer into deep space to the beginnings of our universe.
It will be specially equipped to view infrared light, which escapes from the dust clouds where the first stars and planets formed.
Revolutionary design, runaway costs
In deep, cold space, nearly a million miles from Earth, a giant telescope later this decade will scan for the first light to streak across the universe more than 13 billion years ago.
The 7-ton spacecraft, one of the most ambitious and costly science projects in U.S. history, is under construction for NASA at Northrop Grumman Corp.’s space park complex in Redondo Beach, Calif.
The aim is to capture the oldest light, taking cosmologists to the time after the big bang when matter had cooled just enough to start forming the first blazing stars in what had been empty darkness. Astronomers have long dreamed about peering into that provenance.
“It is the actual formation of the universe,” said Alan Dressler, the astronomer at Carnegie Institution for Science who chaired a committee that proposed the telescope more than a decade ago.
If the James Webb Space Telescope works as planned, it will be vastly more capable than any of the dozen U.S. space telescopes and will be a dramatic symbol of U.S. technological might. But for all its sophistication, the project also reveals a deeply ingrained dysfunction in the agency’s business practices, critics say. The Webb’s cost has soared to $8.8 billion, more than four times its original estimate, which nearly led Congress to kill the program last year.
The agency has repeatedly proposed such technologically difficult projects at bargain-basement prices, a practice blamed either on errors in its culture or a political strategy. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA’s budget, said a combination of both problems affected the Webb.
“There was not adequate oversight,” Wolf said. “And there were reports that the cost estimates were being cooked a little bit, some by the company, some by NASA.”
It could spell a new era for the space agency, in which it will have money for just one flagship science mission per decade rather than one every few years as it has in the past. The Webb’s cost growth, along with an austere budget outlook for NASA, is depleting the agency’s pipeline of big science missions. A much-discussed mission to return samples of Martian soil to Earth, for example, may be unaffordable, according to the House Science Committee staff.
The Webb telescope was conceived in the late 1990s as a more modest project with a smaller mirror for about $500 million. Then-NASA chief Daniel Goldin challenged the science community in a major speech to double its capability for the same price.
Dressler, who was in the audience when Goldin gave the speech, recalled: “It astonished everybody. It made no sense that you could build a telescope six times larger than Hubble ... and have it come in cheaper. We were so stunned, we didn’t know what to do.”
The early lowball cost figures had no official standing, but they shaped political expectations many years later.
Not surprisingly, the price began to rise, first to $1 billion and then to more than $2 billion when the aerospace industry began submitting estimates. By 2008, when the program was well under way, the cost hit $5 billion.
NASA was running into difficulties in manufacturing almost every aspect of the telescope, and it was forced to stretch out the schedule, said Richard Howard, NASA’s head of the Webb program and the agency’s deputy chief technologist. The agency kept investing in the most difficult technologies for the Webb, leaving other parts of the project out of sync. As a result, some components will be boxed up and stored for years while other pieces are completed.
The delays boosted the cost even more. By last year, the cost estimate to build the telescope hit $8 billion. The launch date slipped from 2014 to 2018, meaning an army of experts will have to keep working years more on the project.