When a damaged Apollo 13 and its crew were careening to Earth, mission control director Gene Kranz famously told the assembled NASA team that “failure is not an option.” Actually, the actor playing Kranz in the “Apollo 13” movie spoke those words, but by all accounts Kranz and his team lived that phrase, with a drive that became a reality.
That kind of hard-driving confidence now seems to be built into NASA’s DNA, and with some tragic exceptions it has served the agency well in its myriad high-precision and high-drama ventures.
So it was somewhat surprising (and a bit refreshing) to read the recent blog post from Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Space Science Directorate, on the subject of the scheduled November launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.
“Those who are not worried or even terrified about (the challenges facing the JWST mission) are not understanding what we are trying to do,” he wrote.
“For most missions, launch contributes the majority of mission risk – if the spacecraft is in space, most risk is behind us. There are few types of missions that are very much different with most risk coming after launch.
“We have already performed one such mission in February when we landed on Mars. For the Perseverance rover, only 10-20% of the risk was retired during launch, perhaps 50% during the landing, and we are in the middle of the residual risk burn down as we are getting ready to drill and collect the precious Mars samples with the most complex mechanical system ever sent to another planet.
“The second such mission this year is Webb. Like a transformer in the movies, about 50 deployments need to occur after launch to set up the huge system. With 344 so-called single point failures – individual steps that have to work for the mission to be a success – this deployment after launch will keep us on edge for 3 weeks or so. For comparison, this exceeds single point failures for landing on Mars by a factor of 3, and that landing lasted only 7 minutes.”
Zurbuchen is confident that the Webb team and technology is up to the challenge but still, that is quite a risk profile. And after it clears all those hurdles, it has to perform as planned as a next generation telescope.
The process of reducing risk has been long, painful and costly.
Development for the telescope — which will see further back in time than any other telescope, to the origins of the universe — began in 1997 and was initially scheduled to launch in 2007. But the complexity of the JWST, as well as its originality and some well-documented human and corporate errors, have caused innumerable scheduling delays and cost overruns. The telescope was initially priced at $500 million but will end up costing in the range of $10 billion.
Many of the JWST components had to be invented from scratch — including the 21-foot in diameter main mirror composed of 18 hexagonal segments made of gold-plated beryllium ; a sunshield and cryocooler that keep JWST instruments just a few degrees above absolute zero (-369.7 F) to allow for the kind of infrared observing it was designed for; and thousands of microshutters, each thinner than the width of a human hair, that will open and close to allow light from targeted objects to reach the telescope’s sensors.
Also brand new will be technology to unfurl the delicate objects the size of the main mirror and the sun shield, which is roughly the size of a tennis court. All this has to be squeezed into the fairing of an Ariane 5 rocket that will be launched from the European Spaceport in French Guiana. The JWST will be shipped via the Panama Canal to Kourou in August.
Those 344 single-point failures are present from early in the spacecraft’s journey to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point in space, some 930,000 miles from Earth, to final robotic mirror unfurling when it arrives there.
The JWST is headed to a Lagrange point because they are locations in space where gravity from the sun and Earth balance the orbital motion of a satellite. Putting a spacecraft at any of these points allows it to stay in a fixed position relative to the Earth and sun with a minimal amount of energy needed for course correction.
While NASA has gotten very good at robotics, as seen with its Mars rovers and many other missions, the deployment of the JWST is in a robotic class of its own. And unlike the grand observatory it will augment and eventually replace — the Hubble Space Telescope — the JWST will be too far away into space for astronauts to arrive and repair it, as happened five times with Hubble.
Here is a Northrup Grumman video showing how the many robotic procedures that have to go right for a successful JWST deployment.
Given the difficulty factors involved, why did NASA (as well as its European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency partner) undertake — and stand by — the JWST mission?
As Zurbuchen wrote of the Webb telescope: “Its scientific promise is breathtaking. Discoveries ranging from imaging the first galaxies in the universe, analyzing the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, and even making discoveries in our solar system – the Webb space telescope is a dream come true for astronomers and science fans alike.”
Because the Webb is an infrared telescope, like the Spitzer Space Telescope which launched in 2003, it will be able to peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems formed and are forming today. It will also be used to tease out a better understanding of dark matter, hypothetical form of matter thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe and about 27% of its total mass.
The more we learn more about our universe, the more we realize that Webb is critical to answering questions we didn’t even know how to ask when the spacecraft was first designed,” said Zurbuchen. “Webb is poised to answer those questions, and is worth the wait.
A story about the James Webb Space Telescope would not be complete today without noting the controversy that has grown over its name — which is that of the second NASA Administrator, James E. Webb. He led the agency during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and overseeing all the critical first crewed launches in the Mercury through Gemini programs, and left just before the first crewed Apollo flight.
Webb is generally highly regarded in the space science and exploration communities for his NASA work and in 2002, the developing Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope as a tribute to Webb.
But in more recent days, his time at the State Department before coming to NASA has become a matter of some controversy. Four astronomers wrote a petition, published in Scientific American earlier this year, saying that “the name of such an important mission, which promises to live in the popular and scientific psyche for decades, should be a reflection of our highest values.”
They argued that during his time at State, Webb was involved in efforts to rid the State Department of gay people in the early 1950s, when it became common to ask potential hires about their sexual orientation. “The records clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he handed over homophobic material,” the four wrote. Others have defended Webb as an unbiased person.
The question is now the subject of an internal investigation by NASA. The agency’s acting chief historian, Brian Odom, is working with a historian from outside NASA to review archival documents about Webb’s policies and actions, according to agency officials.
“We must make a conscious decision,” Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, told an agency advisory committee in June, as reported in the journal Nature. “We must be transparent with the community and with the public for the rationale for whichever decision we make.”
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.