How Relieved Are We That James Webb Space Telescope Doesn't Suck?

Now that the James Webb Space Telescope is launched, deployed and working well, let's not deny that getting here wasn't fun.

Published by Tony Darnell on 13th Jul, 2022

JWST Doesn't Suck

For a while there, it wasn’t looking good. In March 2018, after finally getting the telescope, spacecraft and sunshield assembled, Nortthrop Grumman tears the sunshield during an unfolding test which also broke some screws. This comes after years of delays and multiple project re-plans that delay the launch for over 10 years and quadruples the final price tag.

The project is in serious danger of being canceled after the tearing episode, the Government Accounting Office identifies 344 different ways this mission could fail due to a single incident. NASA has so much invested in the project that Thomas Zurbuchen comments that if JWST fails, the science mission directorate (the part of NASA that does planetary and earth science exploration) will be set back 20 years.

This sunshield tear incident was serious and delayed the launch until March 2020. Another delay due to pandemic issues delays it a final time to December 2021. Thomas Zurbuchen goes on record saying, “It’s OK to be terrified.”

Most Mars landings performed by NASA using rovers had a factor of three fewer risks than the James Webb Space Telescope launch and deployment, where 344 single points of failure were known.

But launch it did, finally, and sighs of relief could be heard around NASA, Northrop Grumman and the American Taxpayers that supported the project and dreamed of the images the Webb Space Telescope would produce. Hopefully. If everything worked that is.

I remember vividly the launch of Hubble in 1990. I was in college at the time and of course, almost immediately after deployment on the Space Shuttle, the announcements came in that the mirror was flawed. And it wasn’t just any flaw, it was a telescope-making-101 flaw: the mirror had spherical aberration, a defect so common, amateur telescope makers knew to watch for it and how to correct it.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a good time for NASA, and I won’t rehash the ball-busting NASA took over it - and deservedly so. None of us wanted to see that happen to Webb, but cost-plus contracts and the hubris of military contractors are one of the constants in the NASA ecosystem of space exploration, so anything was possible.

The launch and deployment of JWST was so smooth I could hardly believe it. It seemed that everything that could go wrong, already went wrong in the clean rooms of Goddard and Northrop Grumman. Exactly the place where you want them to.

The launch went off without a hitch, the same for the multi-week unfolding, deployment and commissioning of the optics and instrumentation. Early engineering data from JWST made everyone salivate and want more. The focus images alone were breathtaking.

So here we are, in the summer of 2022, looking at the first science images from a telescope that many thought shouldn’t have been built or wasn’t worth the sunk cost. JWST ended up decades behind schedule and cost as much as an aircraft carrier. What we’re getting for our money is vistas and data from the universe unobtainable any other way.

Hubble recovered from its disastrous deployment once the photons were collected from the distant reaches of the heavens - showing our place in the universe with staggering, jarring, humbling images (and a pair of glasses). The universe it seemed, is teeming with galaxies, no matter where you look there are hundreds of billions of them.

The Webb Space Telescope will be redeemed similarly, only this time, with higher resolution and direct observations of planets around other stars. When Hubble was launched in 1990, we didn’t even know there were any exoplanets at all. We’ve since learned that there are on average 1.6 of them for every star in our galaxy. Hubble can’t see them. JWST can.

Thank God the James Webb Space Telescope doesn’t suck.


Published by Tony Darnell

Tony Darnell Profile Picture

Tony Darnell is the creator of Deep Astronomy, LLC, a company dedicated to sharing the wonders of the universe and providing perspective of our place in the cosmos. For most of his life, Tony has been interested in science communication and education and has dedicated the best part of his life towards that interest. While embarked on that mission, for 30 years Tony has also worked as a software engineer and worked on writing code for telescopes, astronomy data pipelines, image processing and data analysis. His last gig was the goal of a lifetime: working on data from the Hubble Space Telescope.