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Thursday, October 21, 2010
Outer Space ...

I caught up recently with NASA’s latest big thing, the James Webb Space Telescope. There’s a good article about it in the October Scientific American. In a way it replaces the Hubble, and in a way it’s different. The Webb is built to observe a broad range of infrared light coming from distant reaches of the universe, whereas Hubble focused on the visible spectrum, with a bit of range into the ultraviolet and infrared zones.

Also, the Webb is more of a “deep space” mission; whereas the Hubble orbited at around 380 miles from Earth, the Webb will find its way to a “gravity point” about a million miles from Earth, on the far side away from the Sun (towards Mars). It is a good bit more sensitive than the Hubble, partly for being bigger, and partly for being so far away from Earth (which radiates a lot of energy and fuzzes up the really faint signals from space). It won’t deliver those fantastic pictures as Hubble did, but it will return a lot of data maps that will help answer a lot of questions about what went on in the first 200 million years after the Big Bang. It will also help to find other planets of distant stars that might support life.

If it makes it. The James Webb is scheduled for launch in June 2014, and is one of the most technically ambitious things that NASA has ever done. I won’t explain the details (the Sci Am article does a great job with that), but let’s just say that this is a whole lot more complex than rocketing a cylinder or a tube up into orbit. The darn thing has to just about assemble itself once it’s out there in the blue (or black, really). There are all kinds of moving parts and crazy maneuvers that NASA has not yet tried out, at least on something the size of the Webb telescope. And if one little thing goes wrong, just about the whole thing will be in-operable. We won’t be able to send a Space Shuttle out to fix it, and there aren’t any other back-up plans either (like some kind of robo-repair ship).

So NASA is really betting the farm here, putting all of its eggs in a nice little basket; does this really make sense? I know that I’m not a space scientist and I may not have the right to criticize the great minds who put men on the moon and brought them home. But then again, these are the same great minds who gave us the Space Shuttle, telling us how much better it would be than the Apollo-Saturn rockets that came before it. And now they tell us that the old capsule on top of a disposable rocket is the best way to get people into space after all. The Webb will cost about $1 billion per year over five years; that will eat up about one-quarter of NASA’s budget for the scientific explorations of space. If one little gizmo locks up or buckles the wrong way, that’s money totally down the drain.

Oh well . . . Godspeed, NASA. I’ll have my fingers crossed for you (assuming I’m still alive and well in 2014).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:03 pm      

  1. Jim, I couldn’t help but think as I read your blog: Would’t it be something if we could spend as much time, energy, and money on learning how to get along in the world–on making peace in the world–as we do on this Webb Telescope? Not to say that we should not do the Webb telescope, but how about spending some of that budget on some other types of needs in the world today.

    Kind of reminds me of the billionaire in India who is building (or has already built) a skyscraper home to the tune of $1 Billion. And the home overlooks the slums of Mumbai. Somehow or other we just don’t know how to spend our money on what seems to me the more important things.

    And I just have to say: 2014 is just 3 years from now; surely you’re not that old that you can wonder if you’ll make it til them. Maybe even I might make it till then. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 22, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  2. Mary, yes, hopefully we will both be around to see what happens with the new space telescope. As to the argument that it’s bizarre to spend billions on scientific or commercial tools when there is so much human need, well . . . I share your concern for the poor and acknowledge the injustice of how unevenly wealth is distributed in our world. But then again, billions have been spent helping the poor, and yet the poor are still with us — in part because of their own life decisions (not to deny the injustice and barriers that they experience). You never know when a human achievement like space exploration or world commerce will help inspire a child in poverty to overcome those self-defeating tendencies (such as teenage single-parenting, drug abuse and violent crime) and pursue her or his own achievements in life. So, maybe we need something of both — direct economic support for the poor, but continued support for the cutting-edge of human achievement.

    Comment by Jim G — October 24, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

  3. Jim, OK I can go along with you on everything until…..

    You get to the part about: The poor will always be with us because of their own life decisions.

    As I see it, that’s blaming the victim; and I just can’t agree. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 24, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

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