Do Look Up

It’s always nice to wake up to good news, and it is not necessarily a common experience as we reach the end of the second year of a pandemic. But for astronomers, two decades of anxiety were laid to rest over the weekend as the last mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, were locked into place.

Part of me always responds a little cynically when NASA’s public relations machine hypes the difficulty of forthcoming space-based feats, whether it is the 7 Minutes of Terror as a rover lands on Mars or the 344 single points of failure that could each spell doom for this wonderful telescope. There is some butt-covering in there if things do go wrong, but it is also the patter of an old-school magician as he prepares to saw his assistant in half. NASA is, at heart, a bureaucracy and does not set out to do things it does not believe it can accomplish. 

But things do go wrong in space. The probe that drilled a hundred million dollar hole in the side of Mars because metric and imperial units were accidentally combined when computing its trajectory. Or the Hubble telescope itself, whose mirror was mis-configured in a way that an old-school lens-grinder polishing a glass blank would be embarrassed to reveal. And rockets do sometimes fail. So there is always room for worry. 

In fact, many failures result from organisational complexity – miscommunications that plant the seeds for a catastrophe which only become apparent when everything is fitted together and hurled into the heavens. And the JWST had a remarkably baroque bureaucratic journey.  Its origin is often traced to a 1989 workshop on successors to the Hubble Space Telescope – held before Hubble itself was in space. The green light for NASA to build it followed a decade later, with a US$1.6 billion budget and 10 year roadmap to launch. 

By 2010 it was clear that this budget and timeline had been somewhere between a shared, consensual hallucination and an active untruth. Launch was still years away and the budget had swelled to something like $10 billion; at one point the joke was the JWST slipped a year every year. Cynics argued that this reflected a belief that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, trusting Congress to chase sunk-cost rather than scuttling a program with billions already spent. 

The telescope was the subject of Congressional hearings and became something close to a public scandal, suffering a “near death experience” when its future budget was briefly erased during the wrangling on Capitol Hill. Likewise, the management of the JWST itself was the subject of a blunt report that drove changes in its leadership and process. 

The following decade saw the project stay (mostly) inside the new budget cap but more schedule slippages during testing meant that it finally made it to space on Christmas Day 2021. By then, the project’s many travails had ratcheted up the anxiety-levels of everyone in the field to the point that you could almost hear your colleagues gently buzzing from stress. 

So it was a massive relief and perhaps something of a surprise that a pitch-perfect Christmas-day flight was followed by an almost flawless deployment of the massive sunshade and the unfolding of the telescope mirror.  The next few months will be spent aligning the individual segments of the mirror and cooling the instruments to their operating temperature, but the JWST now seems to promise two decade’s worth of unprecedented observations of the universe. 

So I’m happy.

Not just happy in fact, as watching a group of people come together to do something this hard and this unprecedentedly complex – often in the face of administrative inertia – reminds me that it is not only possible to reach for our dreams but that sometimes we manage to take hold of them.