The James Webb Telescope is one of NASA’s most expensive projects and is expected to revolutionize scientists' understanding of the universe, but that is only if NASA can finish building it.
“We got a telescope that's pretty much coming together, but at what expense? At what delay, and to what end is this thing really gonna push astrophysics and astronomy forward?" Leonard David, a space journalist with over 50 years of experience, questioned.
The Government Accountability Office found the James Webb telescope will most likely not be ready by the expected launch date, and if it is delayed again it will also probably go over budget.
"Of all the NASA projects, this one stands out for the cost growth and schedule delays that it has," Cristina Chaplain, director for contracting and national security acquisitions at the Government Accountability Office, said.
The telescope was supposed to launch in October 2018, but late last year they asked for a five to eight month extension, putting the launch date between March to June 2019.
“Over the course of the last year, they’ve used up all their scheduled reserve due to technical problems that are not unusual for a program of this nature, but nevertheless it has caused them to delay their schedule at least five months," Chaplain said.
And this project is not just one of NASA’s most expensive projects, it is also one of the most complex endeavors they have embarked on.
“This is a very difficult deployment. It moves away from Earth. It goes to this Lagrange point far from Earth. It has to unload itself and spring itself and then unfurl itself and do all these mystical things. And then calibrate itself. And it's a challenge, and maybe we're up to it, and we'll find out if we're not," David said.
And time is not the only thing the project is running out of. Congress had put a cost cap of $8 billion on the telescope, and according to the GAO report NASA is at risk of exceeding that.
Congress has not said what they will do if the project does go over budget, and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science did not return Circa’s request for comment.
But even if the project does exceed the $8 billion spending limit, Chaplain said the project is too far along to turn back now.
"We are so close to the end, literally all of the pieces have been built, most of the pieces have been tested so we are at the point where we are just putting them together. It would be very hard to cancel at this point," she said.
This is not the first time the James Webb telescope has ran into these issues. The project was initially estimated to cost $1 billion to $3.5 billion and launch between 2007 and 2011, but early challenges turned that estimate into an impossible mission.
And when the James Webb Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Telescope, does launch, it is expected to give scientists a view of other solar systems and the possibility of building blocks of life on other planets.
“We complain about the budget overruns and it happens a lot. But at the end of the day, when the thing goes off and is real successful, you have a tendency to forget all that,” David said.