James Webb: NASA’s 10 Billion Dollar Gamble

Jeremiah Barron, Contributing Writer

On Christmas day, NASA’s James Webb space telescope lifted off out of French Guiana over 14 years after the intended launch date. Webb is currently on its way to its final orbit where it will begin photographing the early universe. 

James Webb is the successor to NASA’s Hubble telescope, which despite its initial adversities, was wildly successful. Hubble’s conception began in the 1940’s and launched in 1990. Decades of planning and billions of dollars went towards the project, yet as the first photos of supposed distant galaxies returned, it became clear something was wrong, the photos were blurry and out of focus. Hubble’s main mirror had a flaw 1/50th the thickness of human hair, this ultimately delayed Hubble’s ability to photograph the universe for 3 years until it could be repaired. 

NASA is 14 years behind schedule and 9 billion dollars over budget when it comes to the Webb program.

James Webb cannot afford such a mistake. Hubble was stationed in low Earth orbit, making repairs possible albeit expensive. In contrast, James Webb is stationed over 1 million miles away; for perspective, the Moon orbits the Earth at a distance of 240,000 miles. This means that minor tweaks are not possible. If in the coming months the Webb’s photos are faulty, then 10 billion dollars and 23 years worth of development would be thrown down the drain; it truly is a 10 billion dollar gamble.

Hubble is limited by its inability to see light in wavelengths beyond what is visible to the human eye. This means that distant galaxies, galaxies formed in the early years of the universe, are invisible to Hubble as they are only detectable in infrared. NASA addressed this by outfitting Webb with 18 hexagonal gold mirrors that can collapse to fit within a rocket’s fairing; gold has the valuable property of being reflective at infrared wavelengths.

Despite the smooth launch last month, Webb is still far from operational. Mike Menzel, a lead engineer for Webb, told Space.com: “there are 344 single-point-of-failure items” and Krystal Puga, a fellow engineer to Menzel, also told Space.com that Webb has 144 release mechanisms “that all must work perfectly.” The next 6 months are crucial for the future of NASA and the reputation of the program. NASA is 14 years behind schedule and 9 billion dollars over budget when it comes to the Webb program. If Webb fails, this setback could be devastating to NASA which is already struggling to keep up with private space enterprises. 

However, there is a silver lining in the decade and a half of delays. These delays allowed NASA to run countless tests, meaning the odds of something being overlooked is very low, especially after the lessons learned from Hubble’s failures. For now though, all we can do is keep our fingers crossed as Webb is en route to go further than any human has before. As Mohammed Musawwir, a Junior here at CRLS, says “[Webb] has the potential to change how we see the universe.” Of course, this is only true if NASA’s 10 billion dollar gamble pays out.