President #Donald #Trump once said “Sometimes by losing the battle you find a new way to win the war.”
Since the year 2011, NASA has been battling to get the James Webb Telescope off the ground. Yet with each new year its liftoff remains stuck in oblivion. At the moment the JWST is forecast to launch aboard an Ariane 5 booster in the year 2021.
Open to betting?
The kernel of this defeat is three fold.
With all of the daunting complexity of the Webb, mistakes have been made and probably more than NASA wants to admit. The last three year delay was on account of parts falling off the telescope during a shake test, but there have been many others. Technicians have been observed misapplying solvents to valves. Then there are reports of instruments getting switched on wrongly.
Then there is the immaturity of technology. Back in 2001 when the JWST was proposed, ten technologies pivotal to its success didn’t exist. In seventeen years engineers have had to reinvent the process of constructing telescopes. These innovations have already built better astronomical detectors and new extremely precise methods for measuring mirrors.
In the end, all of these problems come back to NASA’s culture of optimism. While their achievements in space have been historic, sometimes their ambitions are more than they can accomplish.
When it’s all over in 2021 and the telescope launches, the final price tag is expected to be close to ten billion dollars.
What if they fail and the battle is already lost?
In 2012 the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) gave NASA an out with the endowment of two space telescopes attributed to their cancelled Future Image Architecture program. The FIA program was born in 1998, at the request of the NRO for new imagery architecture. In an unexpected upset, Boeing beat out Lockheed Martin for the contract. However their aspirations were larger than their talents because in 2005 the program was terminated. The official story was that the new optical reconnaissance telescopes were inoperable even after an 18 billion dollar investment.
But that might not be the real story, because the bonus telescopes feature adjustable secondary mirrors for variable focal lengths. They also feature 2.4 meter mirrors. This is important because the original Keyhole satellites were built to fit in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay. Subsequent models rode expendable Delta rockets to orbit. The Delta IV features a 5-meter diameter fairing and the potential for larger mirrors. The inherited telescopes are also very close to the original Hubble in focal length at 19.2 meters versus the Hubble’s 57.6 meters. This feature could sweeten deep sky observations! It is equally plausible that the discarded NRO satellites are remainders of an obsolete Keyhole program.
Nonetheless this is all academic. The Hubble Telescope is nearly 30-years old and its years are numbered. The James Webb Telescope is scheduled to replace the Hubble in 2021, but after a ten-year delay that is debatable.
In the financial world businesses hedge their risks by purchasing safer positions in other securities. In order to secure continued exploration, it is time for NASA to refit an NRO telescope for launch just in case!
Do you agree?