NASA’s subsequent flagship observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is gearing up for its launch to area on Saturday morning — lastly. The Webb telescope is the most important observatory constructed for launch into area. Its 18 gold-plated mirrors make for a system that’s much more delicate than the Hubble Area Telescope, which it would succeed as humanity’s strongest scientific instrument for learning the formation of our universe and distant worlds in our galaxy.

However the Webb, with a price ticket of some $10 billion, has trudged by probably the most fraught improvement timelines of any area program, lasting over 20 years and costing billions greater than its authentic estimate.

“The stuff they confronted was what loads of area applications face, as a result of every thing must be excellent on a spacecraft like that — you’ll be able to’t go repair it after launch,” mentioned Cristina Chaplain, who for roughly a decade led audits of the James Webb Area Telescope on the Authorities Accountability Workplace, Congress’ watchdog company.

“It’s very advanced and fragile,” she mentioned. “There’s going to be errors, however on a program like that, one little teensy factor can have dramatic penalties.”

Right here’s a glance again at among the unfastened screws, price overruns, stealthy journeys at sea and political controversies that the James Webb Area Telescope and its supporters endured on their method to the launchpad.

Planning for a telescope to return after Hubble started in 1996, however the Webb didn’t get its present title till 2002. NASA picked Northrop Grumman to construct it, estimating prices from $1 billion to $3.5 billion. Mission managers anticipated it to launch as early as 2010.

Building of Webb’s most advanced buildings — its fundamental science devices and the huge 18-plate mirror — started in 2004. In 2005, a assessment prompted redesigns to reduce its technical complexity.

Although much less advanced, the telescope grew to become dearer, with the worth tag swelling to $4.5 billion, and NASA officers estimated a brand new launch date in 2013.

Nicely into the telescope’s building round 2009, engineers and NASA officers started to grapple with the problem of inventing, constructing and testing cutting-edge applied sciences.

One problem was creating the observatory’s “cryo-cooler” to maintain Webb’s ultrasensitive infrared sensors and computer systems from overheating in area. Creating the telescope’s micro shutter array, a small gadget essential to surveying huge swaths of the sky, was additionally tough. The gadget, the dimensions of a postage stamp, incorporates some 248,000 tiny shutters, or home windows — every just a few occasions bigger than a human hair — that open and shut to permit mild in.

It grew to become clear that the telescope couldn’t be constructed for the amount of cash Congress had appropriated.

An unbiased assessment of this system ordered by Congress in 2010 “discovered that this system was in loads of hassle, and it wasn’t going to satisfy its price and schedule deadlines, and it was not being funded appropriately, and there have been loads of administration and oversight points that had been known as out,” Ms. Chaplain mentioned.

“I believe it was a little bit of a shock,” she mentioned. “It hit Congress fairly laborious.”

The assessment estimated a brand new price of $6.5 billion and a launch date of September 2015. In response, some lawmakers proposed a invoice that may have canceled the telescope fully.

However NASA vowed to get this system again on observe, and ready new estimates: an $8.8 billion whole cost, together with improvement and managing the telescope after its launch, with an October 2018 launch date.

To maintain NASA in test, Congress capped the price of this system’s improvement at $8 billion and required Ms. Chaplain’s workforce on the G.A.O. to conduct annual audits. It “was in all probability the primary time we had been requested to take a look at a significant NASA program yearly,” she mentioned.

The telescope’s building was accomplished in 2016. That’s when NASA and Northrop Grumman found a brand new set of bugs.

In 2017, NASA introduced it could must launch the telescope in 2019, as a result of “integration of the varied spacecraft parts is taking longer than anticipated,” the company’s science chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, mentioned in an announcement on the time, stressing the change was not the results of any accident. No boosts to this system’s finances had been wanted, the company indicated.

Then, an unbiased assessment in 2018 discovered {that a} handful of human errors had prompted extra delays and price will increase. The telescope’s propulsion valves had been broken when engineers used the improper solvent to scrub them. Dozens of screws that mounted the telescope’s huge sunshield got here unfastened throughout vibration checks. And defective wiring throughout checks despatched extra voltage into the observatory’s transducers.

“The error ought to have been detected by the inspector, who didn’t examine, however relied on the technician’s phrase that he had executed the wiring accurately,” the 2018 report mentioned.

Fears that the testing mishaps would lead NASA to breach its $8 billion improvement funding cap grew. The report mentioned human errors price this system $600 million and prompted 18 months of delays. Then, in the summertime, NASA introduced a brand new date, appearing on the report’s suggestions: Webb would launch on Mar. 30, 2021, Jim Bridenstine, President Trump’s NASA administrator, introduced on Twitter.

The company additionally concluded that the brand new improvement price could be $8.8 billion, breaching its cap by $800 million. This system’s whole price, together with post-launch operations, rose to $9.6 billion.

Schedule disruptions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic additional delayed the launch of Webb in 2021.

On the identical time, one other stumbling block sprouted: The telescope’s name was called into question. James Webb, the NASA administrator who performed a central function within the Apollo program, additionally served because the below secretary of state within the Truman administration. Throughout his tenure, 1000’s of homosexual males and lesbians had been ousted from authorities jobs in a interval generally known as the Lavender Scare. NASA finally refused to rename the telescope.

In June, 4 months earlier than Webb was anticipated to launch, NASA and ESA officers additional delayed the launch to assessment the profitable operation of the Ariane 5 rocket.

As soon as these considerations had been resolved, the companies set a Dec. 18 launch date. The telescope was ferried from California to French Guiana in October throughout a 16-day trek that handed by the Panama Canal. It was executed in secret, partially out of concerns over piracy.

After 20 years of tumultuous delays and price overruns, the telescope had lastly reached its launch website. The telescope, nevertheless, couldn’t escape some late efficiency anxiousness.

The Dec. 18 launch date shifted to Dec. 22 in early November after a clamp band, which had been serving to safe the telescope to its launch mount, unexpectedly got here undone, shaking up the telescope and inflicting worries however no harm. The Dec. 22 launch was then pushed to Dec. 24 final week after there have been glitches with a cable that helped the telescope talk to floor programs.

Greg Robinson, NASA’s program director for the telescope, informed reporters on Tuesday that the difficulty persevered, however that he anticipated it could be mounted as soon as the Webb and its rocket had been wheeled out to the launchpad.

Each time that occurs is as much as the climate. The Dec. 24 launch plans had been pushed to Dec. 25 due to excessive winds close to the launch website.

Now Christmas morning awaits, the climactic launch date for NASA’s strongest area telescope.