If everything had gone according to plan, the most powerful space telescope would be in orbit right now, perched about 1 million miles from Earth, peering deep into the universe, and returning home mesmerizing photos of glittering stars and galaxies.
Instead, it’s still in a factory in California, waiting to receive more money so engineers can finish building it.
The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next big astronomy mission, has been in the works for two decades. When the concept was first proposed in 1996 as the successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, scientists estimated it would cost $500 million and fly by 2007. But as scientists worked on the telescope’s design, the world around them began to change. Astronomers were making exhilarating discoveries about the cosmos, and engineers were inventing the technology needed to study them. Webb’s stewards believed the telescope could do more than originally envisioned, so they expanded its parameters.
As the years passed and the scope of the mission swelled, so did the cost. By the start of this year, Webb had a price tag of $8.8 billion and a launch date of spring 2019. Most of the telescope—its gold-plated mirrors and scientific instruments—had been completed and tested. But there was trouble with the tennis-court-sized shield that’s supposed to protect it from the heat of the sun, and with the spacecraft that will house the observatory’s various systems. It was enough trouble that last month, NASA officials made a disappointing announcement: Webb would be delayed, again, this time to spring 2021. And it’s would be even more expensive.