While NASA has had some big announcements to come out of its space enterprises in recent years, they have primarily come as the result of long-standing missions that were launched during an era when the organization was better funded, or perhaps better at using its limited funding, to get new experiments off the ground.  In the modern era, NASA press releases about new missions usually come in one of two flavors: either the announcement of a ground breaking new mission they drew on a white board and hope someone will pay for, or the inevitable announcement that said mission will once again be delayed.

One of those groundbreaking new missions, the famed James Webb Space Telescope that is slated to replace the aging Hubble as our world’s most powerful lens into the dark expanse of the universe, now falls under that second category, as NASA announced this week that its launch will be delayed nearly year, until the summer of 2019.

According to NASA’s press release regarding the delay, it is required to complete testing on the telescope, particularly its sunshield, despite stipulating that testing has been “going well and on schedule.”

Webb’s spacecraft and sunshield are larger and more complex than most spacecraft.  The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer,” said Eric Smith, program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systemmatically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”

This delay places the James Webb in good company, as another of NASA’s major endeavors, the rocket platform that was supposed to end America’s reliance on Russian owned, Soviet era platforms to get them into orbit, has also been pushed back to 2019 “at the earliest.”

This picture isn’t a joke, it’s an actual shot of Russian security standing around a rocket that’s about to take Americans into space.

The issue with these repeated delays, and their nonchalant treatment of them in the press, is not that America expects its civilian space agency to field underprepared or unsafe equipment, particularly in the case of the SLS (rocket platform) that is expected to ferry astronauts into orbit.  The issue is that NASA doesn’t seem to appreciate the importance of public support when competing for a higher budget in the eyes of lawmakers.  Taxpayers tend to employ a “what have you done for me lately,” mindset when eyeing the money being pulled from their paychecks, to which NASA can really only respond, “our older missions are still operational!”

NASA’s budgetary limitations are an external factor for which they possess very little control, and the missions they put forward are also subject to external pressures as well.  During his congratulations conversation with ISS Commander Peggy Whitson after she’d broken yet another of NASA’s space records, even President Trump told her that he’d like them to expedite their planned mission to Mars, to which Whitson could only respond, “we’ll do our best.” With that in mind, it seems almost unfair to place the blame on NASA for their inability to complete their projected missions within the timeframe they’ve presented.  The thing is, lots of government programs are met with delays and overruns, but few are so susceptible to public scrutiny and questioning.

NASA answers to the nation’s lawmakers in much the same way I answer to the editorial staff and organizational hierarchy of SOFREP and its parent company Hurricane.  When Brandon Webb, our company’s CEO, or Jack Murphy, the editor-in-chief, provides me with a directive through the chain of command, I’m expected to respond with a realistic estimate of what covering that story will require in terms of resources and time.  Those predictions are met with two things from my managing editor: an understanding that a prediction isn’t necessarily a concrete timetable, but also an expectation that my experience and skill set has informed that estimate.