A Look into Space Is Worth the Wait

Wednesday , July 18, 2018 - 12:00 AM3 comments

Guest Columnist

I just returned from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and, boy, do I have some exciting news: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has a new launch date.

JWST is NASA’s next-generation, flagship telescope, built to replace the Hubble Space Telescope and capable of peering back in time to the very earliest events in our universe. The telescope dwarfs the Hubble. At 21 feet in diameter, it’s about as wide as a regulation pickleball court — in case you want to head over to Mt. Ogden Park for comparison.

And Utah is literally all over this thing. The beryllium used to make the composite mirrors was mined right here in the Beehive State. What’s more, the “backplane” of the three-story-high telescope was developed by ATK in Magna, under contract with Northrup Grumman. This rigid structure needs to hold its shape to better than 1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair down to -400 F. The structure required all new methods of manufacturing to develop.

So, yeah, Utah — especially Utah engineers — has a lot to be proud of.

There is some bad news. The launch date has been pushed back almost three years.

You might wonder what makes me so enthusiastic about an announcement to delay my favorite telescope until March 30, 2021. But after a painstaking review, NASA discovered, once again, that doing new things is difficult, expensive and often takes longer than they thought.

But, as NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a recent YouTube announcement, “In the end, the Webb Telescope will be worth it.”

It might help to review the history of NASA’s most popular instrument, the Hubble Space Telescope. The National Academy of the Sciences first advocated for such a device in 1969, realizing that a large telescope in space would be immune from the hassles of bad weather and the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere. Congress approved the budget in 1977, and Hubble was prepared for launch in 1986. Unfortunately, the launch was delayed due to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The instrument, kept in storage at Lockheed Martin, was eventually launched in 1990.

Analysis of the first blurred images revealed a manufacturing defect in the telescope’s primary mirror. While still making a number of important discoveries, Hubble operated at diminished capacity until a servicing mission in 1993 installed corrective lenses to fix Hubble’s near-sighted vision and bring it back up to the original specifications.

Since then, we’ve had a quarter century of unparalleled astronomical discoveries, from the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, revealing the most distant galaxies in the universe, to detecting the elements that make up the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.

And while Hubble’s first few years were met with setback after setback, in the end, it has definitely been “worth it.” Most can hardly recall those first few hurdles, given the success of all that came after.

The care NASA is taking to get Webb right is even more critical. Unlike Hubble, JWST will orbit much farther from Earth, beyond the capabilities of our astronauts to visit and fix any mistakes.

Of course, there is the issue of funding. NASA indicates that another $1.3 billion dollars may be needed, in addition to the $8.7 billion already allocated. Yes, that’s a total of $10 billion, including operations.

While you clean up the orange juice you just spat over the breakfast table, let’s take a moment to consider. That $10 billion covers all the development costs up to date, plus the additional work to get the JWST flight ready by 2021, and operations for its 10-year life span. Considering development started in 2002, that’s a little over $300 million per year, representing less than 2 percent of NASA’s 2017 budget.

That’s still a lot of money, to be sure, but then you have recall that nearly every dollar is spent paying people to do amazing things, and many of them live right here in Utah.

So I, for one, am willing to be patient while NASA does what it does best: develop remarkable instruments capable of doing what humans have never done before. Honestly, $10 billion is a small price to pay to be part of a country willing to peer into the deepest reaches of space to comprehend the very origins of the universe.

It is worth it, and by time this mission is done, we won’t even remember the costs of time or money.

John Armstrong, Ph.D., is an associate professor of physics at Weber State University.

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