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How much did it cost to build the James Webb telescope?

NASA’s ground-breaking telescope returned some astonishing images last month but has cost the agency far more than initially thought.

How much did the James Webb Space Telescope cost?

The James Webb Space Telescope made history last month when the first images from the huge infrared telescope were shown to the world. President Joe Biden and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson hosted a White House event to showcase the telescope’s incredible capabilities.

The ground-breaking telescope was launched in 2021, more than a decade after the original launch target of 2010. The project’s total investment soared across that time and has now cost in excess of $10 billion, more than ten times the space agency’s initial estimate.

In unveiling the images, Nelson said: “This mission was made possible by human ingenuity – the incredible NASA Webb team and our international partners at the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Webb is just the start of what we can accomplish in the future when we work together for the benefit of humanity.”

Why did the James Webb Space Telescope cost so much?

Huge projects like this one, particularly those reliant on experimental, ground-breaking technologies, can often go over budget. However a 1000% increase is certainly unusual and speaks to the difficulties experienced in the developmental process.

Despite having been given an initial $1 billion total budget, the project had surpassed $1.2 billion by 2007 after three years in development. The process continued in the early 2010s and a series of engineering challenges pushed up costs, which reached a peak of $743 million annual spend in 2014.

By 2016 most of the construction had been completed but further complications pushed back the actual launch date from 2019 to 2021. Now that the telescope is in space the ongoing costs have fallen significantly, but NASA is still projected to spend another $1.1 billion through 2027.

During the development, construction and launch process the James Webb Space Telescope took up between 1.5% and 4.0% of the space agency’s total annual budget. The most expensive project currently on NASA’s books is the International Space Station, which accounted for 5.7% of the agency’s expenditure in 2021.

The concept of a Next Generation Space Telescope was first proposed in 1996 and renamed the James Webb Space Telescope in 2002. Multinational aerospace firm Northrop Grumman were awarded the contract in 2003 and the development culminated with the launch in 2021. It was initially thought that the telescope would have a lifespan of between five and ten years, but recent testing suggests that it could remain operational for far longer than initially thought.


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