Webb: Past & Future

The Webb telescope began with a desire to see more of the universe, and was shaped by countless dedicated people on its path from an idea to reality. Follow the journey — past, present and future — of the Webb telescope, and meet the teams and some of the creative minds behind the project.

The James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched later in the decade, will make history as the largest infrared observatory ever sent into orbit. Webb promises to expand the boundaries of our scientific knowledge, looking at the universe in a way that has never been achieved before.

The knowledge it gleans will be shared around the globe. Astronomers from throughout the world will be able to use Webb, winning time on the telescope by submitting proposals to a group of scientists that evaluates the best use of the telescope's hours. After a period for the astronomers to complete their work, those observations will be made available to the public and scientific community for more study, ensuring that the world gets the most from every iota of data the telescope collects.

Webb's global appeal has been part of its nature since the beginning. Fourteen countries are involved in building the Webb telescope: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, French Guiana, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. NASA is the lead partner on the project, working in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Webb's existence will be a testimony to many dedicated workers and countless hours devoted to ensuring the success of the mission.

The Webb mission is expected to last from 5 1/2 to more than 10 years.


Project History

Webb Team Profiles

Here's what some of the people involved in making Webb a reality have to say:


Four years after the Hubble Space Telescope's launch, a question began to arise: What was the next step?

Hubble was a resounding success, advancing scientific knowledge of the universe as it pushed at the boundaries our vision. It was a good time to peer over the horizon and decide astronomy's next move.

In 1996, an 18-member committee headed by astronomer Alan Dressler recommended that NASA develop a space telescope to succeed Hubble. The committee was specific about what the telescope should do. The panel envisioned an observatory that would view the heavens in infrared light — the wavelength band that enables astronomers to see through dust and gas clouds and extends humanity's vision farther out into space and time. It would have a mirror with a diameter of more than 4 meters, giving it greater sensitivity to light and the ability to see farther into space than previous telescopes. It would operate in an orbit well beyond Earth's Moon.

In the spring and summer of 1996, three teams made up of scientists and engineers from the private and public sectors met to determine whether NASA could realize the committee's vision. All three came to the conclusion that the proposed telescope, tentatively named the Next Generation Space Telescope, would work.

Buoyed by these findings, NASA agreed in 1997 to fund additional studies to further refine the technical and financial requirements for building the telescope. By 2002, it had selected the teams to build the instruments and the group of astronomers that would provide construction guidance.

Since then, the telescope has gone through many changes. Its name changed from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope, after the NASA administrator best known for leading the Apollo missions. The telescope's design and instruments have been altered time and again as their designers encountered, then overcame, obstacles thrown in their paths by the harsh demands of a space orbit at such a vast distance. Construction began in 2004 on the parts that take longest to build, went into full swing in 2007, and will be finished in time for final testing of the fully integrated telescope and its 2018 launch.

Back to top

Project Timeline

  • 1993

    Space Telescope Institute Council appoints a committee to study 21st-century space-astronomy missions.

  • 1995–1996

    The committee recommends, as a successor to Hubble, a significantly larger telescope capable of seeing infrared light. NASA selects Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute to study its feasibility. Three independent government and aerospace teams determine that such an observatory is feasible.

  • 1997

    NASA selects teams from the Goddard Space Flight Center, TRW, and Ball Aerospace to fine-tune the telescope's technical and financial requirements.

  • 1999

    NASA chooses Lockheed Martin and TRW (which in 2002 became Northrop Grumman Space Technology/Ball Aerospace) to conduct “Phase A” mission studies, preliminary analysis of the design, and cost.

  • 2002

    Based on two “Phase A” studies, NASA selects the design of TRW/Ball Aerospace to continue in “Phase B” detailed design studies, which examine the performance and cost of the chosen design. The telescope is renamed from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope. TRW, bought by Northrop Grumman, becomes Northrop Grumman Space Technology. NASA selects the flight science working group and the team responsible for developing the Near Infrared Camera.

  • 2004

    Construction begins on certain telescope parts that require extensive, long-term work — in particular, Webb's science instruments and the 18 segments of the primary mirror.

  • 2005

    NASA approves the use of the European Space Agency-provided Ariane 5 rocket to launch Webb into its operating orbit. This completes the contributions of the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency in the Webb program.

  • 2006

    The science instrument teams for the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) pass their critical design reviews and initiate construction of the flight instruments. All Webb's essential technologies are tested successfully under flight conditions.

  • 2007–2008

    NASA has the mission reviewed by internal and external groups. The internal “preliminary design review” and external “non-advocate review” concludes that the plans and designs have reached the maturity needed for NASA to commit to phases C and D. Phases C and D entail detailed design, procurement, testing, and assembly of telescope and observatory components. Construction begins in earnest.

  • 2009

    The Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) structure, which will house Webb's four science instruments, arrives at Goddard Space Flight Center for testing. These tests will verify the ISIM's ability to survive launch and the extreme cold of space, and to precisely hold the science instruments in the correct positions with respect to the telescope.

  • 2010

    The James Webb Space Telescope passes its Mission Critical Design Review, which signifies that the integrated observatory will meet all science and engineering requirements for its mission. The sunshield also passes its critical design review, certifying that its design is complete and meets mission requirements.

  • 2011

    Webb's mirrors are completed. They have been polished and coated in gold, and they have passed cryogenic testing, which exposed them to the frigid temperatures they'll be subjected to in space.

  • 2012

    Goddard Space Flight Center receives two of Webb's four science instruments, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), as well as Webb's Fine Guidance Sensor, from the European and Canadian space agencies. Webb's secondary mirror and the first three primary mirror segments also arrive at Goddard Space Flight Center from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. Northrop Grumman and partner ATK finish constructing the center section of Webb's backplane structure, which will hold the telescope's primary mirror segments.

  • 2013

    The two side “wings” of Webb's backplane structure are completed by ATK and Northrop Grumman. Webb's two final science instruments, the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), as well as the remaining primary mirror segments will be delivered to Goddard Space Flight Center.

  • 2014

    The 2014 period focuses on manufacturing the spacecraft and cryogenic testing. Northrop Grumman tests a full-scale engineering model of the sunshield to demonstrate the precision-folding and -unfolding necessary to protect the mirror and instruments from heat once in space. Manufacturing of the spacecraft parts, such as fuel tanks, gyroscopes and solar panels, begins. Cryogenic testing of the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM), including all four instruments, demonstrates the performance of the instruments as well as the electronics used to communicate with the instruments.

  • 2015

    The 18 primary mirror segments are mounted into the backplane, along with the secondary mirror and support struts.

  • 2016

    The primary and secondary mirrors are integrated with the aft mirrors and the ISIM to create the unit known as the Optical Telescope Element. The spacecraft is connected to the sunshield.

  • 2017

    Final testing occurs, including a comprehensive test at Johnson Space Center of the integrated telescope and instruments.

  • 2018

    The observatory and sunshield become one unit. Webb is shipped to Kourou, French Guiana, for launch in October 2018.

Back to top

Who is James Webb?

James Edwin Webb (1906–1992) served from 1961–1968 as the second administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA was at that time a very young organization, having been formally established on October 1, 1958. Presiding over such an important and complex agency called for the skills and rich experience Webb had gained negotiating Washington's political and bureaucratic scene.

Webb wasn't a scientist or engineer. He was a businessman, attorney, and manager who had served as Director of the Bureau of Budget and Undersecretary of State under President Harry Truman. He was originally reluctant to take the job offered by President John Kennedy, assuming that it might be better handled by someone with a better grasp of science or technology. But Kennedy wanted someone with keen political insight and a manager's ability to help the fledgling agency mature.

Webb oversaw great progress in the Space Program during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He also weathered the turmoil surrounding the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy, in which three astronauts died in a flash fire during simulation tests on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Firmly committed to getting NASA back on its feet after the setback, he strove to maintain public and congressional support for the program. He succeeded, thus helping to pave the way to future NASA successes, such as the historic Apollo lunar landing, which took place shortly after his retirement from NASA in 1968. During his tenure, Webb strengthened the space science program and was responsible for over 75 launches.

Recent NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said of Webb: “He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality. Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery. As a result, we're rewriting the textbooks today with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and ... the James Webb Space Telescope.”

After retiring from NASA, Webb worked with several advisory boards in Washington, D.C., and served as regent of the Smithsonian Institution. He passed away on March 27, 1992, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Back to top