How NASA’s Webb Telescope Overcame Slacks, Budgets, and Clamps

How NASA’s Webb Telescope Overcame Slacks, Budgets, and Clamps

NASA’s next flagship observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is gearing up for its Saturday morning launch into space — finally. The Webb Telescope is the largest observatory built for space launch. Its 18 gold-plated mirrors make for a system far more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope, which will succeed it as humanity’s most powerful scientific instrument for studying the formation of our universe and distant worlds in our galaxy.

But the Webb, with a price tag of about $10 billion, has plowed through one of the most fraught development timelines of any space program, lasting more than two decades and costing billions more than the original estimate.

“The things they faced were what a lot of space programs have to deal with, because everything has to be perfect on a spacecraft like that — you can’t fix it after launch,” said Cristina Chaplain, who led audits of about a decade. the James Webb Space Telescope at the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional watchdog.

“It’s very complex and fragile,” she said. “Mistakes will be made, but in such a program, one small thing can have dramatic consequences.”

Here’s a look back at some of the loose ends, cost overruns, stealth sea voyages, and political controversies the James Webb Space Telescope and its supporters had to endure on its way to the launch pad.

Plans for a telescope to come after Hubble started operations in 1996, but the Webb didn’t get its current name until 2002. NASA chose Northrop Grumman to build it, estimated to cost $1 billion to $3.5 billion. Mission managers expected it to launch as early as 2010.

Construction on Webb’s most complex structures — the major scientific instruments and the massive 18-plate mirror — began in 2004. In 2005, an assessment led to redesigns to scale back their technical complexity.

Though less complex, the telescope got more expensive, with a price tag rising to $4.5 billion, and NASA officials are estimating a new launch date in 2013.

During the construction of the telescope around 2009, engineers and NASA officials began to struggle with the difficulty of inventing, building and testing advanced technologies.

One challenge was developing the observatory’s “cryocooler” to prevent Webb’s ultra-sensitive infrared sensors and computers in space from overheating. Developing the telescope’s micro-shutter array, a small device crucial for examining vast swathes of the sky, has also been difficult. The device, the size of a postage stamp, contains some 248,000 small shutters or windows — each only a few times the size of a human hair — that open and close to let in light.

It became clear that the telescope could not be built for the amount of money Congress appropriated.

An independent review of the program commissioned by Congress in 2010 “found that the program was in serious trouble, and it would not meet costs and its scheduled deadlines, and it was not properly funded, and there were many management and supervision issues that were mentioned,” said Ms. Kapelaan.

“I think it was a bit of a surprise,” she says. “It hit Congress pretty hard.”

The review estimated new costs at $6.5 billion and a September 2015 launch date. In response, some lawmakers proposed a bill that would have canceled the telescope entirely.

But NASA promised to get the program back on track and made new estimates: a total cost of $8.8 billion, including development and management of the telescope after launch, with a launch date in October 2018.

To keep NASA in check, Congress capped the cost of developing the program to $8 billion and required Ms. Chaplain’s team at the GAO to conduct annual audits. It “probably was the first time we were asked to watch a major NASA program every year,” she said.

Construction of the telescope was completed in 2016. Then NASA and Northrop Grumman discovered a new set of bugs.

In 2017, NASA announced that it should launch the telescope in 2019 because “the integration of the various spacecraft elements is taking longer than expected,” the agency’s chief of science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said in a statement at the time, stressing that the change was not. the result of an accident. No increases in the program’s budget were needed, the agency said.

Then, an independent review in 2018 found that a handful of human errors had caused more delays and cost increases. The telescope’s propulsion valves were damaged when engineers used the wrong solvent to clean them. Dozens of screws holding the telescope’s massive hood came loose during vibration tests. And faulty wiring during tests sent too much voltage to the observatory’s transducers.

“The flaw should have been discovered by the inspector, who did not inspect but relied on the technician’s word that he had done the wiring correctly,” the 2018 report said.

Fears that the testing mishaps would cause NASA to exceed its $8 billion development funding cap grew. According to the report, human error cost the program $600 million and caused a delay of 18 months. Then, over the summer, NASA announced a new date, acting on the report’s recommendations: Webb would launch on March 30, 2021, Jim Bridenstine, President Trump’s NASA administrator, announced. on Twitter.

The agency also concluded that the new development costs would be $8.8 billion, exceeding the cap by $800 million. The total cost of the program, including post-launch operations, rose to $9.6 billion.

Schedule disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have further delayed Webb’s 2021 launch.

At the same time, another stumbling block arose: the name of the telescope was questioned. James Webb, the NASA administrator who played a central role in the Apollo program, also served as secretary of state in the Truman administration. During his tenure, thousands of gay men and lesbians were driven from government jobs during a period known as the lavender scare. NASA ultimately declined to rename the telescope.

In June, four months before Webb was expected to launch, NASA and ESA officials further delayed the launch to assess the successful operation of the Ariane 5 rocket.

After these concerns were resolved, the agencies set a launch date for December 18. The telescope was transferred from California to French Guiana in October during a 16-day trek through the Panama Canal. It was done in secret, partly out of concerns about piracy.

After two decades of tumultuous delays and cost overruns, the telescope had finally reached its launch site. However, the telescope could not escape some late failure fear.

The launch date of December 18 shifted to December 22 in early November after a clamp band that had helped secure the telescope to its launch mount unexpectedly dislodged, shaking the telescope and causing concern but no damage. The December 22 launch was then moved to December 24 last week after problems with a cable that helped the telescope communicate with ground systems.

Greg Robinson, NASA’s program director for the telescope, told reporters on Tuesday that the problem persisted but that he expected it to be resolved once the Webb and his rocket were driven to the launch pad.

When that happens depends on the weather. The December 24 launch plans were rescheduled to December 25 due to high winds near the launch site.

Now Christmas morning awaits, the climax of the launch date for NASA’s most powerful space telescope.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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