The Webb Telescope

We had dinner with Leonard and Barbara David when we were in Colorado over the holidays. He told me that he’d been working on this piece about whether it’s too big to fail.

I’ve been concerned about the risk for years. I hope it works, but it’s not the approach I’d have taken. The next big telescope will be assembled in space, not launch origami.

14 comments on this post.
  1. Arizona CJ:

    The deployment issue is the one that worries me most; it’s insanely complex, and has to work. There’s also the factor that the lengthy delays mean that the hardware will be quite old before it ever leaves the pad. That does not bode well for either its electronics or its deployment mechanisms.

  2. wodun:

    The article makes it sound like there are many other possible problems other than the deployment of the sunshield.

    Who has a product closest to serving the need for a mobile airlock and living space? Cygnus + airlock + MEV? Dream Chaser? Something from Biglelow?

    The telescope they are building after JWST is already having problems too.

    Robert Zimmerman has a theory that NASA intentionally low balls cost estimates to get initial funding and then “unexpectedly” runs into problems that increase costs.

  3. Bart:

    I wouldn’t call it “low-balling”. More a best case scenario. It’s achievable, but only if everything goes right and no issues are uncovered, which is never the case.

    But, that’s not really all that bad. It’s kind of like setting the speed limit 10 mph below what you want everyone to stay below. If there were no limit, people who be going all kinds of fantastic speeds.

    Without the threat of cancellation holding the contractor’s feet to the fire, the costs could balloon unchecked. The cost bogey gives the government leverage to keep the pressure up.

  4. ken anthony:

    This is SOP for many govt. agencies. It works especially well for NASA because once they’ve already spent a ridiculous amount of money on something that doesn’t work it becomes a gamblers dilemma. “I can’t quit now! I’ve got to get my investment back.”

    It’s purely a lack of good management with a twist of larceny.

  5. AO1:

    “intentionally low balls cost estimates”
    like all suppliers then, Military Contracts, Private Companies and just about every IT company I’ve dealt with.

    No supplier who put in honest estimates of time and costs ever won anything.

  6. Zach:

    Plus (as mentioned in the article) no chance for a Shuttle mission to fix it if something goes wrong. From what I read, the missions to Hubble were crazy dangerous and difficult, but at least they were doable. I shouldn’t be shocked that somehow our national launch hopes are built on a system that’s more wasteful and less capable than the Shuttle, but as far as I can tell, nothing in the SLS/Orion capabilities or budget would allow for a mission to fix the JWST.

    And one other thought to add to Rand’s; instead of launching one big old 21-foot mirror (made up of 18 segments), why not launch 18 (or a hundred) smaller telescopes? I’m thinking something like the IOTA, but in space. I don’t know, maybe an optical/IR array in space is a hard problem to solve; but that seems like a software problem, where the JWST is a huge, complex hardware problem. I’m also not sure about the cost of getting payloads to L2, and I grant you that my Kerbal Space Program-level understanding of orbital mechanics is not really helpful here. But I assume that getting a bunch of smaller payloads to L2 is perhaps a smaller risk than One Giant Thing.

    Oh, and your average Congressperson remains idiotic about space as usual. “Hey, let’s switch the booster to a reliable American rocket instead of Ariane 5.” Look, 82 successful flights in a row is not bad, Congressman. And which US systems have the capability? Delta IV Heavy, I guess? I dunno, you guys would have to tell me. But everything I know about Ariane 5 says that’s a decent, reliable rocket.

    I’m excited about the telescope; I want very much for it to succeed. But I totally agree about the cost and risk, and there’s so much insanity in any project of this sort.

  7. ken anthony:

    The shuttle could not go that far into space to repair anything, but the BFS will.

    A bunch of little mirrors would need to be aligned. I once had to get a couple of laser micrometers to measure the thickness of beryllium-oxide plates (used in a stellar sensor for missile navigation I think? It was probably just a substrate so I don’t know why thickness was so critical?) but BO is translucent and the beams would interfere with one another depending on how far apart they were (along with being very sensitive to my power supply which wasn’t stable enough.) finally I used dry cells which worked but had to be recalibrated after every few measurements so could not be used in production.

    I’m wondering if there is a software solution for combining the images of many small mirrors that are not in perfect alignment?

  8. MfK:

    “The next big telescope will be assembled in space, not launch origami.”

    Yep, absolutely. Every spacecraft should be assembled in space. It would not only make “launch” 100% reliable, it would transform the economics and scale of space exploitation.

  9. Blue:

    Webb should have been shuttered years ago when it became clear it was going to go fantastically over budget.

  10. ken anthony:

    Why ever launch it when it’s purpose is served just as it is? Wow. That’s too cynical even for me. It does provide a new capability, but are there better ways to spend $9b on science? Even astronomy?

    why not launch 18 (or a hundred) smaller telescopes?

    This actually aligns with the problem much better. There are a lot of stars out there and Hubble can only look at a few at a time. One astronomer decided to look at an empty part of space and discovered wonders. We can build some pretty large one piece mirrors and stack a few of them in BFR cargo? Then the BFR crew could assemble them without expensive automation.

  11. Tim Kyger:

    “We can’t go out there to fix it.” Why not???

  12. ken anthony:

    It would cost more to fix it than to just launch a new one? $9b just doesn’t go as far as it used to when you use SLS/Orion. Could parts even fit in the Orion?

  13. David Spain:

    The mind boggles.

  14. rickl:

    Now that I think of it, I read somewhere that it would have been cheaper to launch a new Hubble telescope than sent up a Shuttle crew to repair the existing one. I don’t know whether that is true or not.

Leave a comment