How NASA made sure James Webb was ready for the rigors of spaceflight


Testing can be a nerve-wracking process, and at one point the testing team was rather worried. In 2016, part of Webb was subjected to vibration testing, during which the material is shaken quickly to ensure it can withstand the jostling of the launch, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Everything seemed to be going according to plan until the test crew heard a loud crack. “People said ‘Oh my god, did we just break it? ‘” Geithner said (via Nasa). “I mean, it sounded bad. Then the test stops automatically. That was probably the scariest point.

Fortunately, the hardware itself was not permanently damaged, and engineers added mass dampers to support the secondary mirror to ensure it could survive the launch without fracturing. Another challenge arose during the testing process when Webb’s telescope was at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in 2017. Then Hurricane Harvey arrived – a category four hurricane that made landfall in Texas in August 2017 (via National Weather Service). Team members stayed at Johnson to monitor Webb in shifts and continued testing to ensure it worked as intended.

All of that hard work and careful planning over a years-long testing process was worth it, as Webb was able to launch, deploy, and achieve orbit without issue – an achievement that should not be underestimated. The team calculated that there were 295 point failures that could have damaged the mission. “All of these failures could have happened, and they didn’t, thanks to all the controls and process testing implemented over the years,” Geithner said. “So we said, ‘This thing is going to work. “”

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