How much does the James Webb Space Telescope cost?

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How much does the James Webb Space Telescope cost?

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is expected to cost NASA $9.7 billion over 24 years. Of that amount, $8.8 billion was spent on spacecraft development between 2003 and 2021; $861 million is planned to support five years of operations. Adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars, the lifetime cost to NASA will be approximately $10.8 billion.

That is only NASA’s portion. The European Space Agency provided the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and two of the four science instruments for an estimated cost of €700 million. The Canadian Space Agency contributed sensors and scientific instrumentation, which cost approximately CA$200 million.

This places the James Webb Space Telescope among the most expensive scientific platforms in history, comparable only to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

NASA’s contributions to the telescope were not paid out all at once, but spread out over the course of two decades. Annual expenditures vary depending on the particular needs of the project and how many highly-trained technicians, engineers, and scientists are assigned to the program at any given time. This type of cost phasing makes it easier for NASA to shoulder the expenses of a large project year-to-year. Despite its delays and cost overruns, the project never required more than 3% of NASA's annual budget.

NASA's annual obligations for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project, not adjusted for inflation. The spacecraft will begin its operational phase in FY 2022. Amounts after the current year are official projections. Source: NASA Budget Requests FYs 2005 - 2022.

You can access the raw data behind the charts in this article via this Google Spreadsheet.

The Webb telescope was not always planned to be a megaproject. It was originally estimated to cost $4.96 billion and launch in 2014. But serious mismanagement and under-resourcing during critical early planning stages caused the ambitious spacecraft to fall behind schedule. After NASA restructured the project to launch in 2018 the total cost increased to $8.8 billion. In the intervening years, the program struggled to address serious technical problems, further delaying the launch to 2021. This final delay added yet another billion dollars to the total cost.

This did not come without consequences for NASA’s Astrophysics Division, which is responsible for the agency’s space telescope missions. Since 2003, one out of every three dollars spent on astrophysics has gone toward the Webb telescope, crowding out and delaying other projects. Only a handful of small missions have launched in the last decade. The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, the top recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences’ decadal survey for the 2010s, will not launch until 2027 at the earliest.

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