Expecting to Fly (Let’s Get On With It)

JWST full scale model at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Institute (Image: NASA)


For 4 years, I’ve been a member of a team that will deliver part of the biggest ever astronomical space mission: the James Webb Space Telescope. In just a few weeks’ time, we’ll begin testing the flight hardware for MIRI, the telescope’s mid-infrared instrument, that will allow it to peer deeper into dense dusty and cold regions of our Galaxy and the Universe than its three fellow instruments. “Flight hardware” means that these are the actual bits and pieces that will be launched into space on board an Ariane rocket. Yes, that’s seriously cool.

My four years on the team makes MIRI my longest relationship in science yet. I’m rather fond of the little tyke. But four years is nothing in today’s era of mega-science. Literally hundreds of people have had a relationship with some part of the James Webb mission for well over a decade. Some may well be approaching their silver anniversary. Those of you with instrumentation experience know well what this means: meetings, documents, designs, documents, simulations, telecons, more meetings, reviews, procurement, manufacturing, testing, negotiations, documents, meetings. Endless, over and over.

NASA’s current flagship space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, has been spectacularly successful in winning the hearts and minds of people the world over. It’s the “Carl Sagan’s Cosmos” for the nineties and noughties, a source of inspiration for my generation. The agency desperately need for JWST to be a similar success, and its PR machine is already up and running.

But all isn’t well with the James Webb mission. Last autumn, NASA’s project management for the mission got a thorough whipping from an independent review panel (the Casani report) for sloppy budgeting. Despite numerous injections of extra cash, the mission schedule, at that time aiming for a 2014 launch date, was simply not deemed realistic. For us Europeans, there’s the temptation to shrug at the science politics an ocean away. But with ESA holding a 15% stake in the 6 billion dollar mission, we’d do well to take note.

The noises around JWST have been bad recently – all of them. There’s been a change in management structure following last year’s report, and the project now has its own division within NASA. But these exercises are seen as too little, too late. Some people grumble that the JWST overspend has killed off other exciting missions. Others have speculated the mission may be cancelled altogether by the Republicans in Congress. Within NASA, a substantial cost and risk review is ongoing, and no new launch date will be announced before the summer. But rumours will fly.

Meanwhile the instrument and subsystem teams have to find a way of keeping their projects on track. Coping with big delays at this relatively late stage is not just a matter of “keeping things ticking over” for a bit longer – it’s like telling the British Olympic team that London 2012 has just been shifted to 2013. Large projects like MIRI are carefully planned around funding timescales, manpower and milestones – in our case, across 10 different countries. It’s hard to keep the coffers filled and the teams motivated when those milestones keep shifting.

While within MIRI things essentially are Business As Usual, I can’t say I’m not affected by the new delay and the overall bad feeling. But while most are thinking about tax dollars and hours of guaranteed observing time, I play a different numbers game in my head. 36, 38, 40: what age will I be when JWST is finally launched? I’m approaching the stage of my career where the jobs pyramid goes from steep to precipitous; I have to manage my own milestones, in life as well as in work. Should I continue to invest in my relationship with James Webb, or is the latest bad news simply a dealbreaker? At this point, I need my projects to support me, just as I support them.

“Let’s get on with it”, was the upbeat message today from our project manager, John Thatcher. And he’s right. MIRI is an awesome instrument, designed and built by a great community of scientists and engineers. Even with a few more years until launch, MIRI will still blow other infrared instruments out of the water. The best thing we can do for the mission right now is to show the community that we’re in excellent technical shape and able to stick to our schedule.We’ve been working for years towards this final test campaign, we will test, analyse and deliver as planned.

To do this, a group of us will be working in shifts, round the clock, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for over a month. In Didcot. That’s commitment.