NASA’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is a milestone of epic proportions for the space, science, and engineering communities in the US and around the world. On the eve of its launch, First Mode chief scientist Elizabeth Frank, PhD spoke with senior writer Meghan Bartels about the project.

In the article, Frank weighs in on JWST’s unprecedented technical complexity; the inevitability of deadline and budget overruns; and why it’s so risky to have so much riding on a single project. Article excerpt:

Scientifically, it’s all very exciting, but in terms of engineering, it’s incredibly hard. When designs for JWST solidified, NASA had never built anything like it before. “When you’re doing something for the first time, it’s really hard to predict how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost,” Elizabeth Frank, who was a planetary scientist working on NASA missions before becoming chief scientist at First Mode, an engineering company, told

The Hubble Space Telescope, a smaller telescope but the key predecessor in scale to JWST, had a safety mechanism built in: Thanks to its orbit around Earth and its careful design, astronauts could visit the spacecraft and tend to its instruments. Not so for JWST.

… When the astronomy community began toying with ideas for what is now known as JWST in the 1990s, NASA leadership led by then-administrator Dan Goldin encouraged going bigger and bolder.

From there, the ignominy JWST has faced over its ballooning budgets and ever-more-delayed launch may have been a little inevitable. “The more you try to do with one spacecraft, the more inherent technical complexity there is within the spacecraft,” Frank said.

And as JWST became ever more ambitious, NASA became ever more determined to make sure nothing could go wrong.

“If you have a large, complicated mission, you’re going to demand high reliability because it’s so expensive and you have so much riding on it,” Frank said. “But to mitigate the risk of failure, you really need a lot of time and labor, and it’s not the materials that drive the cost of missions, it’s actually labor.” That’s particularly true of aspects like project management and system management, that are key for staying on track, she noted.

Want to work with us? We’re hiring! First Mode draws on the exceptional talent and creativity of its multidisciplinary team to solve the toughest problems on and off the planet. Check out our open positions in Seattle and Perth.