The Flawless James Webb Space Telescope: What Lessons Can We Learn From It?

JWST released its first images on July 12: they are breathtaking, others will follow, the harvest of scientific discoveries in cosmology and astronomy awaits us. And yet, this mission proved over time to be an almost unwise technical and technological gamble: we have great lessons to learn from this great success!

In September 2021, I published the blog post “What if the James Webb Space Telescope fails? Which spells out all the potential (mostly mechanical) problems with this giant telescope. I soon learned that NASA itself has identified over 300 potential failure causes. What I feared most was that in the event of failure, all major scientific space programs would be shut down for at least a decade. And if I were asked to bet on the total success of the mission, without the slightest incident… well, luckily no one offered it to me! So I am very happy to publish, for once, a strongly optimistic post!

Of all the publications we are (rightly) inundated with at JWST, I will mention just three, which alone speak volumes about the first results:
• The web still provides the deepest picture of the universe
• Cosmic Cliffs and Dancing Galaxies: The Web ushers in a new era of astronomy.
• Canada’s instrument on the Webb Space Telescope confirms water in the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-96 b.

So, among the (many) lessons of drawing, I have retained the following, which seems to me more important because the cost and interest of even larger projects are increasingly critical.

First, if the JWST is “capped” at more than 10 times its initial budget (notoriously understated) to reach an estimated $10 billion, remember that the war in Afghanistan has cost American taxpayers more than $2,000 billion: of the equivalent 200 JWSTs, one With balances that are definitely less positive than JWST has already received in a few days.

Then, in complex and inherently risky programs, keeping the schedule should not be the primary management lever: the JWST team asked for one more year to fix the problems encountered during acoustic testing and not to repeat catastrophic errors. The Hubble Space Telescope, which was related in another post on this blog I published in September 2018 “The end of submission to design gods? ” The “extension” associated with this delay was $1 billion. Common sense prevailed: Better to spend $1 billion more than risk losing $10 at a time. Note that in 2014, when mission costs had already reached $8 billion, the (very struggling) American Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski announced to an audience of JWST workers: “I saved you from the Tea Party”, the famous Republican party that wanted to stop working to improve the nation’s finances. Thanks Barbara!

Tom Kendrick in his book “Identifying and Managing Project Risk” confirms that large projects are doomed to failure when managers do not listen to the technologists who warn against the risks. At JWST, technicians prevailed and did what they could on the ground to validate the telescope’s operation.

Let’s not call luck either: that it played on 178 telescope mechanisms doesn’t stand out, statistically speaking at least.

And let’s forget management flaws, if indeed there are any (easy to criticize…): results are there, and that’s what matters.

Of course, not everything is won yet:
• In-orbit failure can happen, it’s a risk for all satellites: but everything is working perfectly so far, so it’s unlikely that a major problem will affect the whole mission (JWST has 4 instruments).
• One of the 5 meteorite impacts detected since the station was deployed proved to be larger than predicted by the model; But adequate margin is taken at this level to ensure expected performance.

The future of the next major scientific programs, at least as ambitious as JWST, is therefore not in question, and their success will depend on the application of lessons learned to date. They can be summed up in two sentences which are a credit to the JWST team:
• Failure is not an option.
• Yes they can.

A huge kudos to the team who have given me back some confidence in this guy Finally lost!

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