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article imageOp-Ed: NASA Blues- Hubble fixed, JWST ready, culture comatose

By Paul Wallis     May 10, 2009 in Science
The last Hubble servicing mission is high risk. Hazards include the inevitable space garbage, micro meteorites, and scheduling issues. Despite which, America’s ever-shriveling space program, to its credit, has managed to coax a mission into orbit.
While Hubble gets this long overdue service, as explained by DJ’s Brandon McPhail, NASA is pushing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, aka Webb) as the replacement for Hubble. That’s unfortunate, as well as at least partly inaccurate, because the JWST is mainly an infra red telescope, by design. It’s a highly advanced, technically impressive telescope, which looks from specifications like it will do its job well.
JWST’s own FAQ says it will “complement” Hubble.
That’s the good news. At least for a while, two high quality information sources will be in operation, together. It almost looks like someone is deliberately trying to advance the science of astronomy. It must be accidental.
The NASA Shuffle, however, seems to be in full force here. JWST represents in some ways a new low trajectory paradigm for major space initiatives and reflects years of NASA-abuse and the normal effects of Washington “culture”, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
The new telescope is self contained, and not designed to be serviced, being in higher Earth orbit than Hubble. (1 million miles, which is a very different class of orbit) The economics are against it. So the JWST, like Hubble, has been built with multiple redundancies, like extra gyros, in case of failures. It’s expected to last 5 years, then, since it’s the size of a Boeing 737, presumably add some shade to some fortunate place on Earth.
There’s a problem here, and it’s more mental than scientific. The JWST was designed and built to be put to work using pure chemical rocket-based technology, that same wonderful prehistoric thing which is producing 5% payloads. Apparently not much is happening in terms of even the concept of working spacecraft, based on the design characteristics. NASA still appears to prefer to call tilers and accountants than to call in physicists and engineers.
Space travel, on that payload ratio, will continue to operate on the same thrifty basis as paying $1000 to mail a nickel to yourself from your local mailbox.
Everybody but NASA is working on big payloads. The Russians and Europeans are well advanced in that area. That’s because the big payloads are far more economical, even using chemical rockets. If you used a working ion engine, or even some of the far out but interesting ideas produced over the last few decades, you’d get totally different payload ratios, and much better economics. You might even get a budget you could actually work with.
The point being, in terms of culture, that even something as perennial as the interminable payload problem isn't even getting addressed. The JWST is big, but it's a matter of degree, not problem solving. This is the big hurdle, it's blowing costs out of the water, and it just sits there like an heirloom millstone around the neck of space science.
NASA was once an agency which simply found and fixed its problems, whatever they were. There was a huge technical support base available, and it did the job well. Nobody will ever be able to take away the achievements of the pioneering days, which were colossal.
The days of big ideas and innovation seem to have gone from NASA, though, and from the agency's inputs. This is the organization that produced revolutionary designs for decades. Now, it finds problems and basically seems to just look at them.
You'd have to wonder about that. It now produces apologetic, unambitious, and in some cases disingenuous, design and design issues, where it used to break new ground every day? Like there’s no possible solution to space shuttle problems but to harp on about what are basically grouting issues for a decade or so? Everything appears to be glued on, not just the press releases? To call it "out of character" is more than a euphemism.
I’m not actually bracketing JWST with that spray. It’s a pretty good design, by any standards. I’m saying the idea doesn’t go far enough. JWST has all the hallmarks of greatness in technical capacity, and nothing at all, in terms of support for that design capacity.
Sure, IR is the way to go, essential research, and important applied technology, but what about the big picture, which is what Hubble covered in spades? When Hubble was launched, the catch phrase of the most popular TV series on Earth at the time was "The truth is out there". Hubble proved it. Now, we've got great, but in the minds of the public, (and quite possibly those doing the budgets) but relatively obscure, spectroscopy?
Has American science lost its brains, or its balls?
Nobody could accuse Skunk Works, JPL, NASA itself, or any of the other big names in US design, of conceptual or spiritual cowardice. It’d be totally unfair. History doesn’t lack examples of that fact. People have achieved incredible things, and dedicated their lives to space.
So where are the big concepts hiding? Where are the huge intellects? “We’ll build a new go kart and send it to Mars with someone driving it” doesn’t quite fit the scope of any of the related sciences. What is America doing with its best and brightest?
(We’ll take a wild guess and assume they haven’t been hiding in the finance industry or health policy for the last decade.)
The big ideas are there, rotting on drawing boards. Billions in patents, people’s time, and the hopes of generations are playing “Accountancy For Masochists”, rather than science. Time passes, and with it, understanding of concepts. Anyone who remembers the original big drive for space will also remember that back then limits were made to be exceeded, not institutionalized.
So what gets done, eventually, these days, is a form of bookkeeping, with some actual current space science thrown in. It’s like Harvard winning the local tiddlywinks championship because Yale forfeited, and had better things to do with its time. Doesn’t shine through as a big cultural milestone, and the result is ephemeral. Meanwhile, everybody else is doing very well in the lack of competition created by an obsession with tiddlywinks.
This mission is expected to extend the life of Hubble by 5 years. That will be quite a relief to those of us who consider Hubble the big flag carrier for astronomy and space science during its lifetime. Far more importantly, it raised the profile of space technology and concepts way beyond any previous science. The Hubble pictures were the recruiting posters of a generation of astronomers and other sciences.
This is another concept that’s fallen to pieces in the course of bureaucratic housekeeping exercises. I’m no fan of privatization, which I consider to be mainly mythological, as an idea. I have to say, though, that there’s a strong argument for private equity to get involved, to keep these big ideas running.
What NASA, and space exploration generally, needs now is a Henry Ford, an Edison, or anyone like that who can push the economics of space science properly, and force governments to pay attention to the potentials. Space will be worth trillions to those who can achieve functional results. As it is, there’s barely a household on Earth which doesn’t have some of the technology created by the original space missions. Future space science will revolutionize economics on Earth.
Excuse me for mentioning this, but talking about tiles and firecracker rocket technology for another few decades isn’t going to achieve that. A few people may die of boredom, but not much else is likely to occur. The means for the next wave of space science has to be created, developed, and used, not lost in the mindsets.
There’s some reason to believe that the grand old American tradition of pricing itself out of the market and finding endless irrelevant middlemen to support in luxury for life isn’t working too well any more. Actually, it’s been out of fashion for a while. If those in the US space science management field would care to read the latest edition of Herodotus, it may explain some of the skepticism.
Rethink, anyone?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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