James Webb Telescope glitch had NASA engineers completely freaking out: 'It was very serious'

On a Science Channel special about the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA Mission Operations Manager Carl Starr spoke of the tense few days where it appeared the mission may have been doomed. The sun shield covers necessary for the telescope’s operation were meant to roll back and hit a switch, telling NASA engineers that it had worked properly. But mission control never received that notice after the first sun shield cover was supposed to have unrolled.

“We never saw the switches activate, so we stopped,” Starr said. “So the next thing is to fire it again, so we fired again and it didn’t work.”

For the telescope to properly open up, hundreds of mechanisms had to work perfectly. Starr said they began coming up with ideas about what might have gone wrong.

“Maybe not all of them were fired,” Starr said. “And maybe it was pinched a little bit and it was kind of crooked like this, and maybe just got hung up. Or maybe it got stuck in there somehow. It was very serious. I’m not sure how to describe it, but, again, it got very quiet, and people became very solemn.”

The James Webb Space Telescope wasn’t without issue while it was being developed and tested. The project faced a month-long delay in late 2016 due to an unexpected outcome while testing the telescope’s mirrors. But, fortunately, this time it was a false alarm.

“The thermal engineers came forward with some telemetry,” Starr explained, “and said, ‘I’m seeing these temperatures, and I’m telling you the only way that you can get those is if there’s nothing in the way. So therefore, it must have unrolled. It just didn’t hit the switch.’”

All involved were clearly relieved and they were able to go ahead with the unprecedented mission.

“When they told us that and we were getting the briefing,” Starr said, “the looks on everybody’s faces, the relief, and then we were able to go full speed ahead right after that.”

For more check out the sciencechannel.com.

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