NASA’s next flagship observatory the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) won’t be launching next March as planned, it has been announced this week. This is the latest in a long series of delays for the mission, which has seen its launch date postponed many times since its original timeframe of sometime between 2007 and 2011.
In January of this year, the US Government Accountability Office released a report stating that there was only a 12 percent chance the observatory would meet its planned launch date of March 2021. To achieve that timeframe extensive work was necessary and the Covid-19 pandemic has now made it impossible to achieve.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science announced the postponement at a virtual meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board, on Wednesday, June 10, during a wider discussion on NASA's current and upcoming missions such as the Parker Solar Probe, the Nancy G. Roman Telescope, and the Artemis Program, that will see the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024.
"We will not launch in March," Zurbuchen said, reports ArsTechnica. "Absolutely we will not launch in March. That is not in the cards right now. That's not because they did anything wrong. It's not anyone's fault or mismanagement," he clarified.
"This team has stayed on its toes and pushed this telescope forward at the maximum speed possible. But we've lost time," Zurburchen added, referencing staff shortages due to the pandemic and social distancing measures.
The delays are disappointing but necessary. The JWST will be not easily accessible once it's in orbit so it needs to work flawlessly, and all the extensive tests need to demonstrate that nothing can go wrong. The telescope will be placed beyond the orbit of the Moon, about 1.5 million kilometers (just under 1 million miles) away.
Despite the delays, Zurbuchen is confident that a launch in 2021 is still on the cards. If it happens, the JWST will be launched on a European Space Agency Arianne 5 rocket.
The telescope is named after James Webb, the NASA administrator from 1961 to 1969 during the Apollo program. Webb has proven a controversial choice for the eponymous telescope, given his history working for the McArthy-era State Department where he actively hunted out and dismissed gay and bisexual scientists and civil servants in the 1950s, deliberately excluded women from the astronaut program in the 1960s, and widely shared his misogynistic views on women in the US forces in a published essay "Women Can't Fight" the year the US Naval Academy's first female officers were due to graduate in 1980; he was a professor at the Academy at the time.
There are calls from astronomers and science communicators, including Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Phil Plait, and Matthew Francis, for the telescope be renamed for a less controversial figure, and that this could be an opportunity to recognize the contributions of other scientific contributors, such as Sally Ride, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, or Katherine Johnson. For our money, we'd like to put forward Dorthy Vaughan.