Jun 25, 2018

Stephen Hawking and NASA: Reaching the Stars by Overcoming Earthly Challenges

By Michael Riobueno
Hawking's A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking, considered by many to be the world’s greatest physicist, passed away in the early hours of Wednesday, March 14, at his home in England. The fact that Hawking lived ‘til the age of 76 is nothing short of astounding. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at 21 years old. Hawking’s impact on the universe and how we view it was tremendous. He linked Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum theory and suggested that space and time would begin with the Big Bang and end in black holes. Furthermore, he discovered that black holes leak energy and fade to nothing at an almost unobservable pace. This phenomenon would later be known as Hawking radiation.

Hawking might have been better known for his books, such as A Brief History of Time, which went from basic concepts, like space and time, all the way to his more complicated theories on black holes. Part of its success is attributed to the fact that the book was aimed at people that were not familiar with cosmology, making the subject accessible to a new audience. The book has sold more than 10 million copies since. Among today’s younger generation, he was extremely well-known for his guest appearances on various comedy shows, such as The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, and Futurama. Aside from his obvious genius, Hawking had a great sense of humor and sometimes played himself as a jerk, taking one on the chin for the sake of levity. NASA paid tribute to Hawking with a tweet that read, in part, “His theories unlocked a universe of possibilities that we & the world are exploring.”

The Hubble Space Telescope

While Hawking’s musings on space were largely theoretical, the issues NASA is facing are more practical in nature. Namely, the giant tasked with exploration of the cosmos is experiencing some issues maintaining the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the Hubble. Data from Hubble allowed researchers to make incredible discoveries about space and time, such as figuring out the age of the universe, which scientists now consider to be about 13.7 billion years old. However, much like Google and Tesla, NASA and its main contractor, Northrop Grumman, seem to be having intense production woes. Webb is a much-needed higher-tech version of Hubble, but its costs are ballooning. A recently-released report on the telescope’s launch progress written by the United States Government Accountability Office has an ominous title: Integration and Test Challenges Have Delayed Launch and Threaten to Push Costs Over Cap.

Artist rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope in action.

The GAO report states that in 2017, NASA delayed the Webb project’s launch readiness by 5 months. It goes on to say that another delay, “from October 2018 to a launch window between March and June 2019—was primarily caused by components of the JWST’s spacecraft taking longer to integrate than planned.” A factor adding to delays is the welding of these complicated parts. A particularly rough bullet point in the GAO report says that in April 2017 “a contractor technician applied too much voltage and irreparably damaged the spacecraft’s pressure transducers, components of the propulsion system, which help monitor spacecraft fuel levels. The transducers had to be replaced and reattached in a complicated welding process.” Grumman to choose “a reattachment method that project officials stated is expected to require less time to complete and pose fewer risks to the hardware than a traditional welding approach.”

The report reads like a horror story for any contractor. One of the components adding to the delays is the sunshield. There were several “tears in the sunshield membrane layers ... a workmanship error contributed to the tears.” The report also states that “Northrop Grumman continued to maintain higher than planned workforce levels in the past year and, as a result, NASA will have limited reserves to address future challenges.” Near the end of the report, it’s acknowledged that “Congress places an $8 billion cap on formulation and development costs, but any long delays beyond the new launch window—which, as noted above, are likely—place the project at risk of exceeding this cap.”

In closing, here is a quote from Stephen Hawking. It comes from an interview in Der Spiegel in October 1988: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.” Here’s hoping that we can continue to explore and understand the universe, despite whatever difficulties may arise.

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Hawking as portrayed on The Simpsons. He played himself in several episodes.
On set with Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory.
Hawking on a zero gravity flight in 2007.