After A Long Wait, More Telescope Delays

7:33 minutes

A rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope in space
Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Northrop Grumman

This week, NASA announced that the launch date for the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope would slip further. It’s the latest in a long string of setbacks for the mission, which was initially conceived to launch in  2011 at a projected cost of $1.6 billion. The launch date was rescheduled to 2018 after a 2011 revision of the project, then to 2019, 2020, and now, after problems including the use of an incorrect solvent during construction and fasteners coming loose during testing, March 2021. The cost of the space telescope is now projected to be $8.8 billion.

Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the James Webb Space Telescope and other news from the week in science, including the FDA’s approval of a marijuana-based medicine,  the discovery of a nursery for manta rays, and research into just how wiggly the tongue of a T. rex actually was.

Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow– a bit later in the hour why the land animal most closely related to the whale is a hippo. We talk about whales. It’s kind of interesting.

But first, this week, astronomers got some bad news. The launch date for the long awaited James Webb Space Telescope is being delayed again. The launch is now planned for nowhere earlier than March of 2021. Joining me to talk about that and other selected short subjects and scientist Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science. Welcome back, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s tell. So what’s this time? What’s the problem this time with the delay?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So with all the delays– this was originally scheduled to go up sometime between 2007 and 2011. And now being pushed back, you know, a decade from that original optimistic view, They’ve had– NASA has had an independent review board look into just what’s going on. And they’ve implemented a lot of their suggestions. But as a result of testing out and trying to fix the problems, they realize that they’re actually going to be a year later than they thought they were last time they had delays.

IRA FLATOW: Did they do things wrong in maintenance? What where were the delays about?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They’ve pinpointed a few different things, including excessive optimism and– yeah– just simple– simply dealing with such a complex system, but human error is another big one. So there’s been incidents, where some fasteners were not installed properly. And so during testing, screws came loose and then they had to go back in and tighten the screws and reinstall the fasteners, or just situations where the excessive optimism is just where they just thought they would be able to do it and didn’t make their estimate.

IRA FLATOW: I have to keep excessive optimism as a new kind of phrase for me. So why is the Hubble so– as a successor to the Hubble, why is this so important?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is going to be able to look back to when stars and galaxies were just forming like very soon after the Big Bang. So peering back into the history of the soul– not just the solar system but of the universe. And we can learn so much about how the universe formed, especially in those early days when everything was a lot more volatile. And that’s just a really exciting time to look at. It’ll also be able to look at the mysteries of planets and to look at exoplanets in more detail, because it’s going to be a very powerful view.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah They now have, what, 3,800 exoplanets?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, it’s an exciting avenue for us to explore.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move on to the FDA approving a new type of drug this week.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, the FDA has approved the first type of drug based on marijuana. So, this is a drug called Epidiolex. It’s going to be used to treat two specific forms of epilepsy. And it’s not entirely– can be ready for market, yet. First the DEA has to reclassify CBD, or cannabidiol, which is the substance it’s based on, so this is still classified as something without medical value by the DEA. So, they’re probably going to be reclassifying it in the next couple of months before this can go to market.

IRA FLATOW: So, as you say, it is all the people who are waiting for this, it’s not going to happen any time tomorrow or the next day.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, they’re going to have to wait a little bit longer for this to become available. But one of the forms of epilepsy it’s supposed to treat is called Dravet syndrome and there’s no other medication on the market right now. So this could be enormously helpful. In trials it’s reduced the frequency of seizures by about 40%.

IRA FLATOW: And also it’s going to change the conversation about medical marijuana, I imagine.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, absolutely. I think right now people sort of self-administer and measure their own dosages for medical marijuana. And this is– it’s been distilled to an oil with a very specific dosage. There’s specific times you would want to take it. So it’s sort of become regulated and brought into the official pharmaceutical market. So this is a big difference from, I think, the way that medical marijuana is currently perceived.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and that will get big business involved.


IRA FLATOW: That will change the conversation.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It always does.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go on to other news about the biologists have found a nursery for manta rays– manta rays?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Manta rays. So these really large rays, they can have a wing span of about 23 feet. And they’re these incredible animals, but we know very little about their early lives. Researchers have never seen mantas give birth in the wild. They don’t really know how they develop. And so this discovery of a nursery in the Gulf of Mexico is super exciting because they can look at the natural lifecycle of these animals.

IRA FLATOW: Is that where tourists are going?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: No, you you have to travel a long distance to get here. This is a place where scientists are focusing, it’s a marine reserve. And they’re hoping to study these very young. So when they’re young, the mantra are only about seven feet across, so they’re kind of puny.


But they’re hoping–

IRA FLATOW: Seven feet is kind of small.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. By manta standards.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Elsewhere in biology, New Yorkers got a bit of a treat this week. Let’s take a listen.


SPEAKER 2: It smells musky and damp, but distinctly rotten.

SPEAKER 3: It looks a dead mouse, I think.

SPEAKER 4: I’ve only smelled roadkill once before and this is exactly what it smells like.

SPEAKER 5: I honestly didn’t think it was that bad. I got right up there and it just smelled like dirty diapers.

IRA FLATOW: What were they talking about?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They are talking about a lovely corpse flower. So corpse flowers, they spend about a decade building up to get ready to bloom and when they do, the result smells like, as people were describing, like rotting meat, like corpses, like sweaty socks. There’s lots of great descriptions for it. It’s a very exciting moment.

IRA FLATOW: I think I recognized some Science Friday staff member [INAUDIBLE].


And they actually went up, they took the train up there. And we had a scientist showing them around and they said– and how bad was the smell? The scientist said, we open the door in the morning and three of our own staff people threw up, because I had accumulated overnight so bad. It was really kind of cool.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, I prefer to observe it through the radio.


IRA FLATOW: That’s what we’re doing, it goes to the radio.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I mean, we humans don’t like it, but carrion beetles love this smell. So the whole–

IRA FLATOW: Oh, is that right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. The reason these flowers released this terrible smell is so they can draw these carrion beetles and they come and they gather pollen from the flower. And next time they wander off they could go pollinate other flowers.

IRA FLATOW: That answers the question of how this reproduces, I didn’t know that. Thank you, Sophie. for that. And lastly, the important question of how wiggly a T-Rex’s tongue was. What’s the burning issue here?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, if you look at dinosaurs in fiction, often that you’ll see them with these long waggly tongues, sort of like a lizard tongue. And so researchers decided, let’s see once and for all what their tongues really would have been like. So they looked at the hyoid bones of fossils, the hyoid is a bone that kind of anchors the tongue in place. And then they were comparing fossils to the hyoids of birds and of reptiles and they found that dinosaur hyoids are probably closer to crocodile ones than anything else.

And crocodiles have these kind of short stubby tongues. Nothing that you would see waggling out as a dinosaur roars. So they’ve unraveled this tongue mystery.

IRA FLATOW: No lizard-like tongue coming out of a T-Rex.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: No, which honestly I’m kind of thankful for. That’s pretty scary to picture.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’ll wait for the remake of the movie. Sophie, thank you. Sophia Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science.

Meet the Producer

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Explore More

Science Friday Presents: Science Diction

Science Diction is a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them.

Read More