“In the end…”

Once again, it was that meeting, the one with the drone of presenter, questions, or occasional speech posing as a question, set to repeat mode. On cue, add the light-hearted tangent every forty-two minutes. We would cover issues and risks and endless lists, the former already happening, the later possible. Also, as expected, the wrap included a pep talk by the manager in charge. The more problems, the more pep. Perhaps also sensing a repetition over decades, this one manager went with a classic – a fusion of “not our first rodeo” with “all is well.” It went something like this – “The space station also had bad days, but in the end, time passed. We persevered and here we are – we have a space station. And all will be fine here too, in the end.”

The mirror of the James Webb  Space Telescope compared to the Hubble's. Credit: NASA
The mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope compared to the Hubble’s. Credit: NASA

In the end. The words hung out there. In the end. I suspect these words took up rent-free residence in a few minds, mine at least. That is to judge from the reinvigorated chatter after the meeting, now reviewing the pep talk too. In the end.

The call to persevere took the air out of the room. It was as if the airlock decompressed without time for me to grab a spacesuit. It came across that what problems we had spent months or years on were neither important nor urgent. The encouragement told us to accept progress was on our side, with a large dollop of inevitability. This should be a comfort as we toiled on our tasks. Indeed, if the attempt was only encouragement, it did not appear to rest on a belief about what we would soon fix or change, but instead that we just persevere. This was ironic, as “in the end” in economics is a call for urgency, since, in the end, we are all dead – so important matters should be fixed here and now (and paid for later, not in reverse).

It’s not hard to run into the idea of inevitable progress – its realness surrounds us everywhere. Today, we walk around with tricorders that inform us if there are life signs ahead, or at least what’s trending, and who just said what. These are also our cameras now, digital where once we had to carry separate cameras with film. Film, the original expendable one-shot deal for seizing the moment (if you were lucky), is long gone. Now we carry our reusable digital film, deleting the poor photos (one day) and maybe even capturing that moment after all. The substrate storing our memories is no longer paper; it’s electrons in the cloud. At least our moments can be uploaded if not us (yet).

In my lifetime, I saw large roll film and flashbulbs (in the hands of adults), then a work-horse 35mm camera, a fun Polaroid instant, and too many digital cameras to count. (Ironically, the entire camera’s lifespan left to reuse decreased as we ditched expendable film.) Today the cell phone works for most occasions (except extra special events, which call for a real camera.) And here we are, instantly exchanging pictures, where before we had to wait to talk again and describe the days gone by.

A picture of my 1957 Yashica LM camera.
My 1957 Yashica LM.

Long ago, I picked up a large format Yashica LM for a dime (LM for its “light meter,” which still works), quite fascinated by the mechanical beast. I promptly relegated it to a shelf for show. Years later, my curiosity sparked, and with too much time on my hands, it turned out the camera worked wonderfully. It produced some beautiful, if prohibitively expensive, pictures. In this view, progress would seem just so inevitable. Nostalgia can’t beat out new technology, even as we keep some relics around and dust them off now and then. Or is there more happening here?

A new height of technology in picture taking is coming around in astronomy, the launch of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope just days away. Just look at the JWST compared to its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. In the JWST, we have a 6.5-meter diameter primary mirror, whereas Hubble’s is 2.4 meters. Whereas Hubble can see nearly as far back as the first galaxies forming, the JWST will see as far back as the first stars. The JWST will collect 6.25 times more precious photons than the Hubble by surface area. Now we might follow up with a view on that habitable zone around Alpha-Centauri (and I can’t wait to get the Robinson’s on their way.)

Even with all these delays and unexpected costs, the JWST promises to make up for it all. History is poised to repeat the same way Hubble overcame its problems, even its blurry vision due to its mirror being ground just slightly off. Even on costs, the James Webb takes these leaps in scientific performance at about the initial cost of Hubble (inflation adjusted, minus the Shuttle launches). This is all measurable, undeniable progress.

This packed ESA/Hubble Picture of the Week showcases the galaxy cluster ACO S 295, as well as a jostling crowd of background galaxies and foreground stars. Credit: NASA. Also, see "The Hubble Deep Field: The Most Important Image Ever Taken" on YouTube.
This packed ESA/Hubble Picture of the Week showcases the galaxy cluster ACO S 295, as well as a jostling crowd of background galaxies and foreground stars. Credit: NASA. Also, see “The Hubble Deep Field: The Most Important Image Ever Taken” on YouTube.

And yet, “In essence, NASA had to mortgage future high priority missions and research to address JWST’s additional resource needs.” This is from a recent GAO report looking at what we’ve learned from the JWST, necessary for what comes next. Using a common mortgage analogy, the wording here is rare for those not regular readers of GAO (or CBO, IG, and other independent reviews). These are reports with words like “challenge” used liberally (16 times in this one), losing the sense of import or urgency the higher the usage. Use the word “challenge” often enough, and before you know it, of course, it’s space exploration – what challenges, what an adventure! Instead, laying bare that context matters is new and significant. A single house can show progress, but the neighborhood also matters.

“Use the word “challenge” often enough, and before you know it, of course, it’s space exploration – what challenges, what an adventure!”

Still, assuming all goes well, never a given, it will be easy to forget the “challenges.” The sun-shields will deploy, forward and back, the tower for the primary mirror will extend, and the sun-shields layers will unfurl. Antennae and booms and gadgets will activate, along a journey to “L2” a million and a half km away, to a stable orbit beyond the Moon. There’s a long list of what must fold out, extend, activate and awaken, and as complicated as it may sound, suffice it to say it’s more than the lens cover on Hubble opening or solar panels pointing at the sun. Some progress comes with complexity, from scaling up but still having to fit on a rocket – origami style – and wanting to do more and better.

A Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. poster circa 1970 presenting a visual history of US aerospace, including imagining what progress lies ahead - the six to seven columns from the right. Notice the spaceplanes.
A Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. poster circa 1970 presenting a visual history of US aerospace, including imagining what progress lies ahead – the six to seven columns from the right. Notice the spaceplanes.

So, as I often saw in NASA projects, you can only scale up so far. Bigger is better until it’s not. The project that survives, resolving its issues, and err…say again “challenges” is fortunate enough to have lived to tell the tale. The projects not so lucky won’t get to pass along their lessons much at all, lacking resources and a pulse. Yet somehow, what worked and didn’t must inform the following steps – as difficult as it may be to put success in context or a failure on the radar.

The Very Large Array, where each antenna is 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, but their data is combined electronically to give the resolution of an antenna 36 km (22 miles) across, and the sensitivity of a dish 130 meters (422 feet) in diameter. Credit: NASA
The Very Large Array, where each antenna is 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, but their data is combined electronically to give the resolution of an antenna 36 km (22 miles) across, and the sensitivity of a dish 130 meters (422 feet) in diameter. Credit: NASA

These lessons are not new, about adding up, keeping projects in their context as part of a bigger neighborhood, or the sustainable limits of scaling up. The experiences on the side of the rocket and the ride appear not that different on the side of the payloads that do the science. For astronomy, one path ahead taking a cue from Hubble and the JWST could be fleets of smaller telescopes. Imagine something akin to the Very Large Array, only made up of many small telescopes in space in formation. Or as well, to get more photons, and see better, farther, for less cost, means innovations we can’t yet imagine – but we urgently must. We will always ask more and more every day of our technology, and that includes that it does more and costs ever less over time. We take the pictures down to zero cost each, and the camera disappears as well – and still go for the upgrade. Perhaps the only progress that’s inevitable comes with a good idea, and an ability to learn, improve and shift when needed, to see and go further, in the end.

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