It seems a little bizarre – even to me – that one of the things I am most looking forward to this Christmas is a successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s been a long time coming. Early mission plans scheduled the launch for 2007 and its cost has ballooned by a factor of ten from original estimates. But now, in literally just a few hours from now, everything reaches a culmination of that huge investment in time and money.
I’ve followed the progress of JWST off and on for a long time. There’s no doubt that its successful launch and deployment will usher in a new era of astronomical and cosmological discovery. But it’s the sheer engineering challenge that I find equally fascinating. The much-reported 334 individual single-points-of-failure in the launch, deployment and commissioning phases underline just how daring a mission this is. (This is about three times greater than the single-points-of-failure for the recent US Mars lander programme.) The space agencies involved could have chosen to build several much lower risk missions, probably for a lower combined budget. And though they would have been worthy instruments in their own right, they wouldn’t have the breadth, power or reach that JWST will have if all goes well.
There’s undoubtedly a lot at stake today and over the next few months as JWST is gently coaxed into life. Things may not go to plan (though I fervently hope they do) but the sheer audacity of the vision and ambition of the JWST is a shining example of what humanity can achieve. Here’s hoping we give ourselves a wonderful Christmas present that in the coming years will reveal incredible new insights into the universe.