JWST July 2020
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope undergoing testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in July. NASA announced July 16 that the mission's launch will be delayed by seven months, to the end of October 2021. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

WASHINGTON — NASA announced July 16 that it is delaying the launch of its largest-ever space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, by seven months to address both technical issues as well as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Agency officials said in a media teleconference that the launch of JWST is now projected for Oct. 31, 2021. The agency had previously scheduled the launch for the end of March 2021.

Greg Robinson, the program director for JWST at NASA, said that “three-plus” months of the delay is caused by the pandemic, including effects on the program to date as well as declines in efficiency in future activities because of new procedures that slow down the pace of work on the telescope at a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California. That work briefly halted in March because of the pandemic, then continued at a slower pace for a couple months before the company was able to resume “near-full” shifts.

Another two months of the delay is to add schedule reserve to the program. Robinson said that the mission, which had two months of schedule reserve remaining at the beginning of the year, now had three months to comply with agency best practices for program management. “We think we have a robust reserve,” he said.

The rest of the delay is to provide additional time for remaining test activities, including acoustics and vibration testing and a deployment test of the spacecraft’s sunshield. That additional time, Robinson said, was based on “learning how to do certain activities” from earlier phases of the program.

This latest launch delay was not a surprise. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said June 10 that JWST would miss its March 2021 launch date because of a slowdown in activities caused by the pandemic. He declined then to set a new launch date, saying that program was still assessing the effect of the pandemic on mission activities.

Even before the pandemic, though, there were concerns that technical issues would delay the launch, based on the program’s use of its schedule reserves. NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said during the media call that the agency had scheduled a review of the mission’s status in April because of those diminishing reserves, but postponed it because of the pandemic.

The delay won’t increase the cost of JWST, which has a cost cap set by Congress of $8.8 billion through launch. “Based on current projections, the program expects to complete the remaining work within the new schedule without requiring additional funds,” Robinson said, by making use of existing budget reserves.

“There were reserves that we were holding,” Jurczyk said, “to handle these kinds of unforeseen issues, like schedule slips. Those reserves are now being deployed.” Officials, though, didn’t say if the delay would deplete those budget reserves.

Zurbuchen said NASA has already discussed the delay with the European Space Agency, who will launch JWST on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana, and did not anticipate any issues. “This fits well into the manifest of Ariane 5,” he said.

Agency officials emphasized in the media call the valuable science that JWST will perform is worth this delay, the latest in a series of delays that pushed back the launch of the space telescope by several years. “We’re opening up an entirely new horizon of discoveries about our universe with the Webb Telescope,” Zurbuchen said. “Our important work provides inspiration to everyone.”

First, though, JWST has to finish testing, be launched and complete a complex series of deployments of its mirror and sunshield once in space. “I will be holding my breath until we get all the deployments done and get the observatory into its science configuration,” Jurczyk said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...