NASA Operations Manager explains the 'very serious' glitch that could have derailed the James Webb Telescope

NASA Mission Operations Manager Carl Starr appeared on a Science Channel special about the James Webb Space Telescope Sunday, where he revealed a glitch that had NASA engineers believing the entire mission may have been doomed.

For the telescope to function properly, a series of sun shield covers had to unroll, hitting switches that would alert those at mission control that it had worked properly. But NASA never got the alert after the first cover was supposed to unroll.

“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.”

Starr said they began to come up with ideas of 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.”

But fortunately, this was nothing more than 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.’”

Video Transcript

CARL STARR: We never saw the switches activated. So we stopped.

So the next thing is to fire it again. So we fired again. And it didn't work.

KYLIE MAR: On a science channel special about the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA Mission Operations Manager Carl Starr spoke of a tense couple of days in which they thought the mission that has captured amazing images from space may have failed. The team believed that the sun shield that is necessary for the telescope's operation didn't open as was designed.

CARL STARR: Maybe it was pinched a little bit, and it was kind of crooked like this, and maybe it 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.

KYLIE MAR: The telescope wasn't without issue while it was being developed and tested. But fortunately, this time, it was a false alarm.

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

KYLIE MAR: And Starr said all involved were obviously relieved as they were able to go ahead with the unprecedented mission.

CARL STARR: When they told us that and we were getting the briefing, the looks on everybody's faces, the relief, and then we were able to go full speed ahead right after that.

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