No news may be good news, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to get the word out just the same.
On Nov. 2, NASA gathered media into a cramped observation gallery overlooking the clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center where the James Webb Space Telescope is being assembled. The event was intended to celebrate a milestone of sorts in the construction of NASA’s biggest science mission ever.
“Welcome to our science party here today,” said John Mather, the Nobel laureate astronomer at Goddard who is senior project scientist for JWST. “We’re celebrating the fact that our telescope is finished and we’re about to prove that it works.”
To be clear, JWST itself is not yet complete. What was on display in the clean room is the telescope’s optical assembly, including its segmented primary mirror that is six and a half meters across, and its suite of science instruments. Those elements, collectively known as the Optical Telescope element and Integrated Science, or OTIS, are now all put together and ready for testing.
The formal milestone celebrated at the event was the completion of a “center of curvature” test of the telescope’s optics, measuring the shape of its main mirror. A similar test is planned in a few months, after OTIS completes a series of vibration and acoustic tests designed to simulate launch conditions.
NASA will then ship OTIS in early 2017 to a refurbished Apollo-era vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center for thermal vacuum testing. After that, around the middle of 2017, it will go to Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Southern California to be integrated with the spacecraft bus and its tennis-court-sized sunshade, and then undergo additional tests. Only then will JWST truly be “finished” and ready to ship to French Guiana for launch on an Ariane 5.
The completion of OTIS, though, was as good a time as any to celebrate the progress JWST has made. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the ceremony that he frequently talks with Eric Smith, the JWST program manager, at NASA Headquarters, and brought up a desire to see the telescope before it begins testing — and also before Bolden leaves office at the end of the Obama administration.
“I said, ‘Eric, can you give me a time that would be nice for me to go out and look at the telescope before it gets shipped?’” Bolden recalled. “The next thing we knew, we had this big event.”
Perhaps a bigger reason for the event was to provide a reminder of the progress the program has made since its near-death experience five years ago, when cost and schedule overruns forced NASA to “replan” JWST under threat of cancellation. That got the program plenty of media attention then, which faded as the program slowly got back on track.
“We made a commitment to the president and the Congress, namely, Sen. Barbara Mikulski” when NASA discovered the overruns, Bolden recalled. That led to the 2011 replan that made the telescope an “agency priority” with special attention ever since. “We’re on schedule, on cost,” he emphasized.
That could always change, of course: any number of things could go wrong during the testing and other launch preparations that would delay the mission and increase its cost. But the fact that JWST has followed its revised plan for the last five years gives NASA confidence that it can do so for the next two.
The only thing missing from the event at Goddard was Sen. Mikulski, the telescope’s biggest advocate on Capitol Hill. When asked by a reporter how often he talks with Mikulski about JWST’s progress, Bolden offered a succinct answer: “All the time.” He added that, even though he will be leaving NASA soon and Mikulski is retiring from the Senate, he expects to keep in touch with her about the telescope.
“My guess is, when I am no longer the NASA administrator after the Obama administration and she is no longer active senator Barbara Mikulski, she has my number and she will probably still be calling and saying, ‘What are those guys doing?’” he said. Hopefully, she won’t be calling because she heard bad news about the telescope.