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posted by Fnord666 on Wednesday March 28 2018, @04:53AM   Printer-friendly
from the no-myopics-lens-this-time dept.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been delayed yet again, due to damage to the spacecraft's thrusters, sunshield, and tension cables:

The slip is not exactly surprising, even though construction and testing of Webb's primary mirror and scientific instruments—its riskiest, most expensive elements—is already complete. These components were delivered in early February to Webb's prime contractor, the aerospace company Northrop Grumman, for further testing and integration with the rest of the telescope. But later that month a report from the Government Accountability Office warned that the company had fallen behind schedule on the supposedly easier parts of the observatory. Valves on the spacecraft's thrusters had sprung leaks after being improperly cleaned, and replacing them had taken the better part of a year. Webb's tennis-court-sized, five-layered folding "sunshield" had also been torn during a test as it unfurled, requiring time-consuming failure analyses and repairs.

NASA will also establish an external Independent Review Board to validate assessments of the telescope's testing:

NASA is establishing an external Independent Review Board (IRB), chaired by Thomas Young, a highly respected NASA and industry veteran who is often called on to chair advisory committees and analyze organizational and technical issues. The IRB findings, which will complement the [Standing Review Board] data, are expected to bolster confidence in NASA's approach to completing the final integration and test phase of the mission, the launch campaign, commissioning, as well as the entire deployment sequence. Both boards' findings and recommendations, as well as the project's input, will be considered by NASA as it defines a more specific launch time frame. NASA will then provide its assessment in a report to Congress this summer.

NASA will work with its partner, ESA (European Space Agency), on a new launch readiness date for the Ariane 5 vehicle that will launch Webb into space. Once a new launch readiness date is determined, NASA will provide a cost estimate that may exceed the projected $8 billion development cost to complete the final phase of testing and prepare for launch. Additional steps to address project challenges include increasing NASA engineering oversight, personnel changes, and new management reporting structures.

NASA will report its progress and the new cost estimate to Congress in June. At this moment in time, NASA doesn't fully know what the final cost of the telescope's development will be, but is now warning that it may exceed its $8 billion budget cap ($8.8 billion including 5 years of operations). The agency will have to get the mission reauthorized by Congress if that is the case.

To Keep NASA's Golden Age Alive, We Need More Telescopes--but Far Less Expensive Ones

The downside of this approach [of launching smaller telescopes] is that highly desirable but extremely expensive flagship telescopes along the lines of Webb must be postponed until the commercial space industry comes fully of age. SpaceX, for example, already launches satellites at one third of the traditional cost, and soon, maybe, that will drop to as little as one fifth. That is a sizable saving by itself.

Cheaper launch services also take the pressure off engineers to relentlessly shave mass from the telescopes themselves by using the lightest and most expensive possible components. Without such a restriction, costs could plausibly be cut by two thirds. Shrinking costs makes a doubling of flagship launch rates feasible. As this commercial revolution continues, an even higher rate of flagship missions could come about. If we embrace such a strategy, the good times needn't stop rolling, and the golden age of astronomy doesn't have to end.

Also at BBC and Nature.

Previously: Launch of James Webb Space Telescope Delayed to Spring 2019
JWST: Too Big to Fail?
GAO: James Webb Space Telescope Launch Date Likely Will be Delayed (Again)


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  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday March 29 2018, @09:24PM

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 29 2018, @09:24PM (#660205) Journal

    Funny, how you can dismiss the rational explanation of the problem with a "don't do that", and then wave a magic "fixing NASA" wand...

    I disagree that the explanation is rational. The Zumwalt syndrome is not inevitable. Don't do that is quite viable. And when you steadfastly refuse to even consider the existence of this simple solution, it makes me wonder why you're bothering. Are you truly not interested in improving one of the great societies of the world or of expanding humanity's understanding of the universe?

    A space telescope will cost a tanker-sized boatload of cash regardless of "conservative" or not.

    Number of zeros matters. We can't afford to treat $500-600 million as if it were the same as $9 billion. That economic innumeracy/complacency is a large part of the reason the US is in such trouble on so many fronts in the first place.

    And, to convince people to allocate that boatload, you need to tout its much better performance than the next terrestrial Humongously Ginormous Large Telescope. Short of doing interferometry, a bunch of similar telescopes isn't what's needed.

    I not interested in "convincing" people to allocate money for the JWST. I'm interested in having a future in space. This Zumwalt syndrome and several other political dysfunctions have killed much of the value of NASA. Fix them or the alternative will be to give up on NASA sooner or later.

    As far as pork, at least JWST should have a Hubble-scale impact on the science it's designed for. Beats an aircraft carrier.

    Again, waste in military spending doesn't justify waste in space exploration and development. I agree that there's a vast amount of waste and corruption in the US military to the level that it is an existential threat to the US. My point though is why should we then be placated by NASA being no more wasteful and corrupt? Why are our expectations so low?

    Instead, I say that we should have much higher standards for these organizations that we use to secure our future. That means no more $9 billion space telescopes or several hundred billion dollar jet fighters that may be slightly better than what we currently have.