The Atlantic

Too Much of a Good Thing at NASA

The agency’s culture of optimism is essential for launching people and robots into space. But it can lead to problems with budgets and deadlines.
Source: NASA / MSFC / Sergey Peterman / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Updated on August 31 at 4:44 p.m. ET

In June, NASA officials announced some distressing news: America’s next great space telescope won’t launch next spring, as they had hoped. Engineers needed more time to finish it. Their new deadline, they said, is 2021.

To explain the delay, officials brought in Tom Young, a highly respected engineer who has been involved with NASA since the 1970s. Young ran through a litany of problems, each more groan-worthy than the next. Engineers had used the wrong solvent to clean the space observatory’s propulsion valves. They had applied too much voltage to the spacecraft’s pressure transducers. When they shook the spacecraft to test whether it could withstand a rocket launch, dozens of bolts broke free and scattered into its hardware, leading to a weeks-long effort to find them.

But there was also a deeper problem. Unlike technical errors like damaged valves or scorched transducers, this problem was intangible, invisible. The tremendous schedule delays and cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope, Young said, were also a result of “excessive optimism” from the mission’s engineers, scientists, and program managers.

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