“Thrilled and Relieved” as JWST Gets Down to Work

“Thrilled and Relieved” as JWST Gets Down to Work

NASA astrophysicist and Nobel Prize winner John Mather is “thrilled and relieved” with the images and data coming from the James Webb Space Telescope. Often heralded as the “father” of NASA’s newest great observatory, Mather has been with the project from the beginning in 1995. His sentiments undoubtedly are shared by the hundreds of scientists, engineers, technicians, managers, lobbyists and politicians who stuck with JWST over the decades and now see the fruits of their resolve, including more images released today.

NASA has released another set of images taken during JWST’s commissioning phase. Unlike those earlier in the week of stars, galaxies and nebula at vast distances in the universe, today’s showed a place much closer to home — Jupiter and some of its moons.

Jupiter, center, and its moon Europa, left, are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)
Left: Jupiter, center, and its moons Europa, Thebe, and Metis are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. Right: Jupiter and Europa, Thebe, and Metis are seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)
Thomas Zurbuchen (L) and John Mather (R) at the release of the first full-color James Webb Space Telescope images at Goddard Space Flight Center, July 12, 2022. Screengrab.

During the event on Tuesday at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, asked Mather “so how do you feel today?”

His reply: “Thrilled and relieved.”

It’s an apt distillation of the excitement of this moment compared to the arduous journey over years of redesigns, schedule delays and cost overruns.

During a 2018 hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee following an overrun that broke a congressionally-imposed $8 billion cost cap, then-chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) graphically showed the program’s evolution.

Source: Opening statement of Rep. Lamar Smith for July 25, 2018 hearing on James Webb Space Telescope: Program Breach and Its Implications.

On the one hand, perhaps it is sufficient for this moment to simply enjoy these first images, the beginning of what NASA and its partners at ESA, the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute anticipate will be 20 years of amazing observations.

Mather is even more optimistic.  After recounting how he was asked to work on the project in 1995 after “measuring the Big Bang” using another NASA spacecraft, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006, he told Zurbuchen “it took us about 25 years to get here, since 1995, and we have at least 25 to go, I hope!”

During a media scrum later, Mather said it doesn’t seem like 25 years have passed. “We’re here, and everything that happened in between sort of fades into the past because it’s working now.”

Greg Robinson, JWST Program Director (NASA HQ), Scott Willoughby, Vice President and JWST Program Manager (Northrop Grumman), and Bill Ochs, JWST Project Manager (NASA-Goddard), July 12, 2022. Screengrab.

On the other hand, it did take a lot to get to this point. Greg Robinson, JWST Program Director at NASA Headquarters, is credited with getting the project across the finish line. He took charge in 2018 after an Independent Review Team identified a long list of problems that had to be fixed resulting in another schedule delay and that cost-cap breach that added another $800 million, bringing the NASA total to $8.8 billion. Adding in the contributions from ESA and CSA, JWST’s total development cost is about $10 billion.

In an interview at Goddard on Tuesday, Robinson told SpacePolicyOnline.com that putting the program on the path to success basically was a matter of getting everyone on the same page. “We had a good team already” but “you have to have safety nets in place” to mitigate human errors. For the future, he hopes new space telescope projects like those recently recommended by the Decadal Survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine can avoid long gaps so knowledge and experience are retained. “We lose all that heritage and knowledge and synergy and we start over. … It’s important to us to start these other missions sooner, particularly the early technology development, to retire a lot of that risk and get into the mission development life cycle so we can do it a lot quicker with fewer risks, less cost. … Overall we have to take advantage of the learning right now.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) did countless audits of the program and offered its own lessons-learned today as NASA moves on to other big programs including the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope now in development:

  • Manage large project costs to limit cascading effects on other science programs. “In 2013, NASA reallocated funding from four science divisions to cover half of an additional $1.4 billion needed by the JWST project.”
  • Assess cost, schedule, and risk more frequently to help NASA decision makers.
  • Minimize risk in program decisions to better position programs for success, especially ensuring adequate funding reserves.

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