Yes, it's complicated, but I'm willing to accept that my intuitions about whether something is too complicated are wrong when we're talking about something that actual rocket scientist have spent millions of hours planning.
Now, maybe that additional risk is less than the risk of doing it a different way, but that just means the mission is particularly risky. That appears to be the case with the JWST in any case.
Space is hard. We've failed many times. It seems rational to be concerned in this case.
The public must be enlightened enough to understand that occasional failure ia a much faster and better and even cheaper path to success.
These missions don't even need to be physically small.
Then launch the more expensive one.
If you're able to deploy orbital observatories with a StarLink sort of cadence (keep throwing up cheap satellites as quickly as possible), would you think we'd reach more mature observation tech faster? Maybe observing from Earth is dead long term if you drive innovation up and costs down with the observing systems and the supporting data transport networks.
TLDR How do we make decades of progress in years instead?
The joke with JWST is that it’s not allowed to fail.
JWT will be ~1.5 million km away from earth, in a special orbit around a spot called the "L2 Lagrange point". It's located there so that it can kind of hide in the earth's shadow at pretty much all times and keep all the nearby "bright" things behind the heat shield.
For comparison, the Hubble is ~600km away from the surface orbiting the Earth, and the Moon is a little under 400,000km away from the earth. JWT will be almost 4x further away than even the moon.
"So what if it fails? There's a lot of money sunk into that! Well, maybe someone would actually decide it's worth going to the L2 to fix it, wouldn't that be cool!!"
So yeah, not the only idiot...
"Send another robot!"
Could that happen?
The orbital mechanics around Lagrange points are weird.
Or to 1997, and telling Goddard "Your specs will require technological development that we feel should be halted until a commercial spaceflight program develops. We're pretty sure next year someone will found a e-commerce business that will make him a billionaire, and he'll sort it all out."
Or to 2002, when tech internet tech was booming and paypal was going IPO, to tell TRW that the $824 million they just acquired should be put on a shelf until about 20 years later.
Or to 2005, 12 years before BFR was announced, when it appeared cost growth was a factor (not at all related to northrup aquisitions). Again, 2010 it passed review, 7 years before announcement. Is it really irony or somehow a waste? I don't think so.
(Full disclosure: I'm working on alternative tech to deoployables for large-aperture telescopes, but I greatly appreciate their efforts on JWST, given what we had over the last 20 years).
I'd watch this youtube red series
The unique thing about L2 is that it's the only Lagrange point where the Sun is always blocked by the Earth. That's what they're going for here.
The real reason why L2 is so interesting is that it violates Kepler's third law: despite being farther from the Sun than Earth, the orbital period is still the same as Earth, because of the gravitational attraction of Earth itself. This allows the spacecraft to keep the same distance from Earth during the year, which eases communications with ground stations.
(Disclaimer: I have been part of the Core Team of the ESA Planck mission, which flew around L2 like JWST will do.)
The real reason for L2 is that the sun, moon, and Earth are all the same direction from the telescope when it is at L2, so the sunshield can block them all simultaneously. Yes, the spacecraft will receive insolation at L2 (yay solar power), but it will always be from the same direction and therefore the instrument can be persistently shielded.
EDIT: from the the horse's mouth:
> To have the sunshield be effective protection (it gives the telescope the equivalent of SPF one million sunscreen) against the light and heat of the Sun/Earth/Moon, these bodies all have to be located in the same direction.
> This is why the telescope will be out at the second Lagrange point.
Ref: https://www.space.com/30302-lagrange-points.html "L1, L2 and L3 are all unstable points with precarious equilibrium."
Targeting a rocket with a larger fairing diameter (even at same payload mass) would make the design much simpler. An upper stage with 20 m length and 9 m diameter on a Falcon Super Heavy would allow to have a fixed mirror and heat shield that is only folded once, instead of the crazy origami that JWST is. But of course such an upper stage doesn't exist yet. SpaceX was only started 6 years after the work on JWST started...
why not build two, given the fact that most of the budget is likely to be R&D costs.
Having said that, I'd be delighted to have a fleet of them.
Half way through the video, I understood why it's so expensive and risky.
On the other hand, Apollo 11 had many 'firsts' that couldn't be tested before the actual mission and it worked out 'first shot'. Of course there were some problems and Apollo 13 showed that the odd's where not too good.
JW is not designed to be fixed or fail, nor are there training runs. It HAS to work first shot.
They've got a Saturn IB at an Alabama rest stop outside of Huntsville. Surprisingly small, but still towers above you!
Well, sooorta. The Saturn V was the third in that series, after the Saturn I and Saturn IB.  While there were proposed intermediate Saturns (and ones past V, too) only two first stages were developed, and the V was the only launcher to fly with the F-1 engine.
Here is a quick animation showing the whole deployment process:
It's still far more complex than just attaching the thing right to the telescope. And glancing starlight leaking in between the shield and the telescope could be a big problem.
I looked it up, the original proposal was actually to use a mobile shield to occlude far away stars for direct planet imaging. I think a similar approach could "fix" JWT but let's hope we never get there
* I'm mostly talking about masters programs here.
The pay, benefits, and level of respect on the job reflect all of that.
If you really want to work in space, I'd go and get a MS (or higher) in aerospace engineering or space systems engineering and work at the systems level.
I got out of aerospace and am much happier for it.
Good for them. The world needs such people, probably in much greater numbers than it needs people like me -- if it needs people like me at all :)
Sadly, no need to fly me to the hardware to apply patches... :-(
You're describing a mistake that happened literally 20 years ago. Don't you think they might have changed the processes in all that time?
Maybe it works at a startup where they try do something completely new but as soon as your stuff gets close to production it won’t be much fun.
There’s a big range of agility at JPL depending on how close your work is to spacecraft operations. Here are two current job openings placed by good groups at JPL that many people here would find challenging and innovative —
https://jpl.jobs/jobs/2018-9779-Senior-Software-Engineer-Aut... (group webpage: https://ai.jpl.nasa.gov/)
Oh, to continue the theme I also interviewed for a couple of startups spun off by JPL people. The one that got to an offer offered way less money than the big internet company I was also interviewing with then.
Like I said, there’s a range of work at JPL, and some of the autonomy work by the linked group most definitely has run on Mars and in Earth orbit.
Probably won't actually make the switch, but just interested in seeing what's out there I guess.
Government research labs are on the GS scale (mostly). We're capped at $166,500/year in the DC/NY/SF area (and also, as it happens, the Denver area). $80k is what we offer fresh-outs. A senior flight software engineer managing ten developers with a TS should be near if not at the top end of the salary range.
Contractors doing that work should be similar or higher. I've tried to convert contractor senior flight software engineers to civil servants, and I couldn't... because our ~$150k/year offer was $30k/year too low.
Here are the GS pay scale tables. The job you've describes should be either a high GS-14 or GS-15. So, $133k/year and up.
The requirements and budgets for them mean that they're much more expendable than something flying on a full size bus. As such, the level of risk tolerance is much higher.
aerospace places tend to just have one engineering rate, and it's dominated by what aerospace engineering graduates cost. which is less than what software folks cost.
aerospace graduates are all high on hubble pictures and "we're doing spaaaaace!", so they charge way less.
if one launch fails, we've got a backup. if both launch, we have two instruments deployed.
why don't we do it??
However, at the very low rates we're talking, everything is (damn near) hand-built. Economies of scale don't kick in until higher volumes.
Given the length of this project, I wouldn't be surprised if at this point NASA couldn't order a second one built even if they wanted to.
The unfortunate thing about advanced technology is that if you don't use it, you lose it. More specifically, you lose the research and machining setups and people with knowledge about them in their head; the main problem here being that documentation doesn't capture everything - a lot of tacit knowledge is captured in e.g. tuning of the machines, undocumented fixes made on-site, idiosyncrasies in manufacturing steps, etc.
One does not even need to consider economy of scale. For example, if the R&D is $1 million, and manufacturing one mirror costs $100k, the total price for two mirrors is $1.2 million vs. $1.1 million for one.
Plus, consider a non-zero probability of a launch failure.
In my opinion, much better for Human advancement than the typical $10B infrastructure project
(Or I am wrong. Maybe JWST is a modified version of a super-secret unannounced program and its budget is covering the development costs of that spying program. Given the testing scheduled I doubt this, but it remains a possibility.)
many of those concocted by NASA announcing artificially low public expectations, while ensuring the contractors know what the real (much higher) expectations are.
The original cost estimate was $0.5B . Now it's roughly at $10B. So there was a 20x cost increase.
So if we assume original expectations it would need to exceed original expectations by 20x just to make up for the cost growth.
Of course we also need to consider all the other NASA telescopes that didn't get funded to feed this one. They all would likely have exceeded expectations too. It's hard to estimate those, but at least a factor of two addition seems reasonable. So it has to be 40x better just to not exceed
BTW nothing of this is cynical. It's just basic cost-benefit analysis.
It would have been better to cancel it early and spend a small part of the cost in technology development (and other more manageable telescopes) to make sure such an epic project disaster never happens again.
Your argument has the same merit as "I need a car to get to a this new job which will cost $1000 and I'll make $100k more." If instead you purchase a car costing you $10k that doesn't mean it's no longer worth taking the job.
This project has advanced our ability to build complex devices, and refined various manufacturing processes that will all have meaningful impacts on our economy and that is before it has started it's mission. The data it will collect is potentially invaluable not to mention the personal inspiration that projects like these inspire in individuals.
Compare this to other ways that our government might have actually spent this $10B over the lifetime of this project and we're still getting a bargain.
Compared to other NASA projects we likely wouldn't have gotten the manufacturing processes or complex integration experience and even more likely we wouldn't have gotten the inspiration. Bigger and more expensive projects are expensive because they're hard. When we succeed in doing hard things and even make the same thing easier in the future we collectively absolutely get more value.
2026? Probably not. 2021? I doubt it. My money is on 2023-24.
Also - isn't the tech behind it is going to be obsolete pretty soon?
boy, that's gonna be a nail-biter. who's gonna insure that launch?
There are several other instruments, including some other imagers.
Edit: makes me also wonder if with all the delays they upgrade any equipment in the meantime.
This is how you never launch the damn thing. There is just no way to "upgrade any equipment" without introducing a tremendous amount of paperwork, additional testing, etc.