NASA $10-billion James Webb Space Telescope cost more, took longer than planned NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is waiting at its launch site, after years of repeated delays and cost overruns. At one point, the giant new observatory was threatened with cancellation.

Why some astronomers once feared NASA's James Webb Space Telescope would never launch

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For astronomers, this is a somewhat surreal time. NASA is finally about to launch the most powerful space telescope ever - the James Webb Space Telescope. It's named after a former NASA administrator. Scientists have been waiting decades for this moment, and as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, there was a time when it seemed like this telescope might not even make it.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: In the late 1980s, astronomer Garth Illingworth was deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Its first big project, the Hubble Space Telescope, was still a few years away from launching. But one morning, his boss told him, look, you've got to start work planning for the next great space telescope, the one that will come after Hubble.

GRANT ILLINGWORTH: And I said, ah, no, we can't do that. We're all flat-out working on Hubble. And he said, trust me - it's going to take a long time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A long time.

ILLINGWORTH: You know, we started out with a little group of, like, three people talking about this and sketching concepts on bits of paper and then putting simple things in the rudimentary computers we had back in the '80s.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Over 30 years later, what's now called the James Webb Space Telescope is waiting at a launch site in French Guiana. The telescope is three stories tall and has a mirror that's 21 feet across. It has a sunshield the size of a tennis court. But to fit inside the rocket, this massive telescope had to be designed to fold up and then unfold itself out in space. Illingworth says building it was a challenge.

ILLINGWORTH: Because we're doing one-off technologies here in many cases. You know, there may be a lot of experience launching other missions and surveillance satellites and all the rest, but nothing is like James Webb. James Webb is unique.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Illingworth says, back in the beginning, there was a lot of pressure to keep costs down at NASA. So the telescope started out with a budget of only around a billion dollars or so. But that amount of money wasn't realistic.

ILLINGWORTH: And that haunted the project for eight years and caused a lot of political anguish, I would say.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA kept asking Congress for more money, and the launch date kept getting pushed back. Things really came to a head about a decade ago in 2011. The House of Representatives moved to kill it. There was a political fight.

ILLINGWORTH: We had teachers and schoolchildren writing, saying, you know, this is - Hubble's been amazing. This is our future. We want this mission.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA did a technical review that concluded the telescope was technologically feasible - just expensive - and so the project went forward. In the end, the final price tag ended up being around $10 billion. Lisa Storrie-Lombardi is an astronomer who serves as the director of the Las Cumbres Observatory. She says some scientists resented how much money was going to this one project. But now that it's a done deal...

LISA STORRIE-LOMBARDI: I can't imagine that most of the astronomical community isn't actually just waiting to see it launch and really, really hopes that it works because if it works, it'll be a really spectacular scientific instrument.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The telescope will be so powerful it will be able to detect light sent out by some of the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang, helping to reveal how the universe evolved into what it is today. But first, this complicated instrument has to unfold itself perfectly. Storrie-Lombardi says there's a lot that could go wrong.

STORRIE-LOMBARDI: It is a worry, I'm sure, for every astronomer in the world who's paying attention because space is hard.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even as they worry, the community is already talking about the next major space telescope. They're thinking about a behemoth designed to study planets around distant stars to search for signs of life. If that one goes ahead, it could launch 20 years from now in the 2040s.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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