What’s the use of math? – a JWST example

JWST LaGrange point map

The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit something called L2, discovered thanks to math in an era where only sheep (and a duck and a rooster) flew. (Courtesy NASA)

My 12-year-old daughter, as 12-year-old daughters do, asked me what’s the use of math. I wrote a book about space engineers. Their work is the manifestation of math. I have taken to answering with something along the lines of “math gives us the ability to model the universe and everything in it. And it keeps bridges from falling down on us.”

If we’re in a vehicle when she asks what the use of math is, I might add, “It keeps the wheels from falling off this car.” Recently, I did a story, yet unpublished, about a steel research center at the Colorado School of Mines. One of its co-founders mentioend offhand that there are 11 types of structural steel in nose of a car’s frame, all for a specific reason. He showed me this video of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air crashing head-on into a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The difference in the wreckage, to no small degree, was math.

Yesterday, reading a bit about the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, I came upon a great pure-math example. It has to do with the JWST, not to be confused with SxSW.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor planned for launch in October 2018, will look farther into the universe’s history than Hubble or any other telescope. It will do more to figure out potentially habitable planets orbiting distant suns, too. It will do all sorts of other stuff to clarify the universe’s development and our place in it. It will cost about $9 billion. Ball Aerospace, the company I wrote about, did up the 18 gold-coated super-lightweight beryllium mirrors, which will unfold into a 21-foot primary mirror.

The JWST will rely on an infrared detector, which has to be kept super-cold. They had to find just the right spot for it in space. The mission designers chose the second Lagrange point (a.k.a. L2), about a million miles away – roughly four times the distance from Earth to the moon. They weren’t the first mission designers to have done this.

From the JWST web page about its future orbit (emphasis mine):

The L2 orbit is an elliptical orbit about the semi-stable second Lagrange point. It is one of the five solutions by the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange in the 18th century to the three-body problem. Lagrange was searching for a stable configuration in which three bodies could orbit each other yet stay in the same position relative to each other. He found five such solutions, and they are called the five Lagrange points in honor of their discoverer.

Lagrange was a contemporary of the Montgolfier brothers. The outer limits of aerospace innovation in those days involved a sheep, a duck and a rooster in a hot air balloon. Lagrange wasn’t looking for applications, couldn’t have conceived of a space telescope. He was just doing math.

From Jars to Stars to… Mars @Slate.com

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

A closely held secret among journalists is that, once you write a story, the mind tends to shed the details rather hastily. And so, despite seeming authoritative — and actually being rather authoritative — for the duration of a given story and for a day or two afterward, it fades fast. Hence the need for beat reporters, who gain depth and source bases through reps.

I had been wondering to what extent the same would happen with things related to Ball Aerospace, having closed the book on the book about four years ago. Sam Lemonick, a freelance writer, gave me a chance to assess that.

Sam came upon the idea of writing a story about how strange it was that Ball Aerospace, this company making instruments for the Orion mission slated for its first orbital test tomorrow (scrubbed today; winds and a goofy valve), was the same Ball that once made the mason jars. Slate published it today on Future Tense.

Ball Aerospace spokeswoman Roz Brown, who was a huge help when I was reporting the book from 2006-2009ish, mentioned to Sam that he wasn’t the first to wonder about the jars-stars connection. She called me last week when I was walking around a private zoo west of Phoenix, one with just loads of macaws and not a few loitering ducks.

I found that, while I had to cram a bit on the specifics, I remembered the broad strokes reasonably well. I was also reminded how much I love the Ball Aerospace origins story. When I started out, I was thinking about writing about a specific mission, Deep Impact. I hadn’t intended to spend time at the Minnetrista Heritage Collection in Muncie, Ind. and various Washington D.C. archives, or to have Roz recall boxes full of old documents slated for shredding back up to Boulder for my perusal. That all tallied up to months of work and about one-third of the book, and it gave the thing its depth.

Sam and I spoke while I was waiting for my 11 year old to finish up a freestyle session at a rink in Scottsdale, Arizona, and even while talking with him, I was keenly aware of not saying much of anything quotable. But his story has a lot of good stuff from the book and he did a great job with the piece, so check it out.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Second-ever comet landing happens today

Rosetta's view from cruising altitude

Rosetta’s view from cruising altitude

Humanity’s second-ever comet landing happens today when the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft (technically, the Philae lander) touches down on the comet Churumov-Gerasimenko at 16:00 UTC, or 11 a.m. Eastern, 7 a.m. Pacific to you civilians. Tune in to the ESA website  for live shots and people speaking in heavy accents.

Wait, second-ever landing?

The first landing happened more than nine years ago at somewhat higher speed, when Deep Impact’s “impactor” (not quite as poetic, but certainly evocative of its existential purpose) touched down on the comet Tempel 1. Philea is to land at 2.2 mph and needs grappling hooks so as not to bounce right back off; the impactor landed at 23,000 mph and vaporized, which was the idea.

Rosetta actually launched nearly a year before Deep Impact (on March 2, 2004; Deep Impact launched on Jan. 12, 2005). Deep Impact flew straight (or elliptically, fine) to its destination; Rosetta took an incredibly discursive route to its target, Spirographing  (hit “show full paths at the bottom and then play, lower left) through the inner solar system through a series of gravity assists swinging it back by Earth, Mars and a couple of asteroids before settling into orbit around the comet itself, which is damn near gravity-free in celestial-body terms. I will never find it anything short of incredible that people can figure out these trajectories years in advance, convert them to rocket and hydrazine pulses, and pull alongside a distant planet or comet.

So today’s the big day, but regardless of what happens with Philae, they folks at ESA have already taken the best photos of a comet we’ve ever seen. Previous to this, the best close-up we had was from the impactor’s little camera, the last of these of which was shot 23 miles above Tempel 1’s the surface three seconds before the camera atomized.

Deep Impact impactor view. The last of these was shot 23 miles above the surface.

Deep Impact impactor view. The last of these was shot 23 miles above the surface.

The shot atop this post was taken about six miles above the surface of Churumov-Gerasimenko (should be a soft-rock band) by the Rosetta navcam. That’s airline cruising altitude. The Rosetta Flicker gallery is worth checking out. Haunting black-and-whites that could have been shot somewhere high in the Rockies on a moonlit night. But these were taken more than 300 million miles away, by a spacecraft that spent the last decade tooling across 4 billion miles of space in discursive pursuit of its charcoal-black partner. Assuming the landing goes well, Philae will do a bit of science and then spend a billion years clinging to the snowy dirtball like some bug hitching a ride on an RV.

Yes, NewSpace will recover in the wake of tragedy

SpaceShipTwo wreckage, Oct. 31, 2014 (via BBC)

SpaceShipTwo wreckage, Oct. 31, 2014 (via BBC)

It’s only been a couple of hours since Virgin Galactic lost its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The names of the pilots — one dead, one clinging to life — have yet to be released. I got the initial word via Twitter, a retweet of @spacecom via Alan Stern and some others. CNN, the BBC and others soon leapt aboard and will ride the story for days. In the wake of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s International Space Station-resupplying Antares disaster just two days ago, the big follow-up question for the nation’s media will be: Will commercial space (in this case NewSpace) ever recover?


Consider:  Fifty years ago this April, a nascent Ball Aerospace saw its second satellite blow up, taking three lives with it. From the book:

The OSO B’s travels ended in a 3,000-square-foot testing facility at the Kennedy Space Center. On April 14, 1964, Ball technician Lot Gabel stepped up to adjust a plastic bag shrouding the spacecraft and the third-stage rocket—a five-foot column of bottled fury— to which it was mounted. This innocuous act, like straightening a spouse’s collar, triggered a spark of static electricity.

A design flaw caused the rocket engine to ignite. It smashed the spacecraft against the hangar’s roof and then careened about the building, spraying blazing rocket fuel and finally ramming into a corner to burn itself out. Gabel, his Ball colleague Sid Dagle, and John Fassett of NASA died of severe burns. The 1967 Apollo 1 disaster, much more notorious, was no more lethal.

They didn’t give up.

Ball would have another shot at space, replacing destroyed instruments, repairing damaged hardware, and modifying the ill-fated spacecraft’s prototype for flight. In Boulder, they worked through their mourning. The OSO 2 launched less than a year after the accident, on February 3, 1965.

Ball Aerospace is still at it.

Virgin Galactic has already shown their mettle. Three workers from Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, were killed in a ground-based propellant-flow test in 2007. They’ve come a long way since. They must again work through the mourning. Then they must convince the market that the roughly 1-in-50 risk of rocket shots failing, the historic norm, somehow doesn’t apply to suborbital missions (SpaceShipTwo topped out at 62 miles) or is worth the thrill. I think passengers will just have to accept a two-percent chance of death, and that most will.

Alan Stern, whose tweet clued me into all this, has felt the loss of space disasters more closely than most: his PhD experiment was aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on that chilly Florida day in April 1986. He’s bounced back, too, and is on his way to Pluto, at least vicariously, as principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission.


Compliance, COSTAR, a dead teenager named Neff, and the Gettysburg Address

COSTAR installation, Hubble Space Telescope

Shuttle astronauts prepare to install COSTAR during the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in December 1993. (courtesy NASA)

After finishing up my moderating duties at Compliance Week 2014, I put on my running stuff and headed to the National Mall, destination National Air and Space Museum. The aim was to see something very specific, an instrument brought back from the Hubble Space Telescope during its final servicing mission in May 2009. In the book, I wrote about it and its creator, a Dutchman who had retired from Ball Aerospace in Boulder but returned to work on this instrument. The instrument compensated for the flaw in the Hubble’s primary mirror.

[Ball optics engineer Murk] Bottema spent his days on the Hubble problem, but his best hours were at night. After tea, reading the newspaper and a late dinner, he sat at the dining-room table with pencil and paper, writing equations. When things were going well, he whistled. When they went less well, he paced back and forth through the living and dining rooms. He talked through nettlesome technical details with his wife, who sewed on the couch under a window that looked out on the southerly portion of the Flatirons formation. She didn’t understand him, knew he was answering his own questions, and stitched away.

Ball Aerospace optics engineer Murk Bottema

Murk Bottema (courtesy Ball Aerospace)

He designed a pair of mirrors on a telescoping arm. The first would reach out and snatch Hubble’s light before it could feed an instrument, redirecting it to a second mirror. The second mirror would be deformed in a way precisely opposite to the flaw of Hubble’s primary mirror but 200 times smaller. He solved the equations and showed that a few strategically placed mirrors could deliver corrected light to three Hubble instruments.

 This work provided the basis for the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, or COSTAR, which a team of about 400 workers built at Ball Aerospace, in a crash 28-month program. From Crocker’s vision in a German shower and Bottema’s optical mastery evolved a $50 million masterpiece of space hardware. Built into a spare Hubble instrument box the size of a voting booth, the business end of COSTAR would reach out into the body of the telescope itself. The optics package squeezed ten mirrors, four telescoping arms, a dozen electric motors and various heaters, wiring and sensors into a four-foot-long triangular prism with a cross section the size of a slice of apple pie.

COSTAR salvaged three other instruments, one which soon confirmed the presence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.


The Washington Monument looks OK in black.

The Washington Monument looks OK in black.

It was a couple of miles’ jog from the Mayflower Hotel down to the museum. I stopped off at the Washington Monument on the way. At the museum, I stood in a light sweat the security line, which moves fast enough that one wonders about its purpose. Past John Glenn’s capsule and Neil Armstrong’s/Buzz Aldrin’s/Michael Collins’s capsule, far below SpaceShipOne and Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of Saint Louis and Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 all dangling from the rafters, I asked a young guy at the information desk if he could tell me where COSTAR was.

COSTAR at the National Air and Space Museum

COSTAR at the National Air and Space Museum

He was enthusiastic, escorting me around the corner to the new display, between full-size Skylab and Hubble mockups. No matter how big you imagine Hubble to be, it’s bigger. And there COSTAR was, next to JPL’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), installed at the same time as COSTAR in 1993. These two boxes – OK, one box and one thing shaped more like a grand piano – circled the Earth for thirteen-and-a-half years, covering more than two billion miles in orbit. WFPC2’s radiator had been battered with micrometeorite hits, each drilled out, apparently for effect. COSTAR looked brand new. And there, extended and protected in somewhat haphazard looking clear plastic the shaped roughly like a coffee can, was its business end. I had only my phone and attempted to photograph it without much success. COSTAR is mostly a box with a protuberance like a robot-witch’s hand. Mostly I just took this thing in and wondered again how the hell Murk Bottema ever conceived of it.

Larry Lee Neff, Vietnam memorial

Larry Lee Neff, one of two Neffs on the wall.

And then it was back out to the mall on a gorgeous May afternoon, the gravel crunching underfoot with each landing. I had forgotten how these green spaces serve as sports fields for ultimate Frisbee and soccer practices, how many school groups can congregate here without getting in each others’ way. I heard a lot of Chinese. I walked as I approached the water-world World War II memorial, which I didn’t remember, perhaps due to its forgettablility. I found myself, as ever, chilled and moved by the indelible Vietnam memorial, the sunken delta that so elegantly demonstrates the real cost of dogmatic adherence to an abstract political theory. My eyes landed on the name Larry Lee Neff. The listings aren’t alphabetical. There are 58,286 names on the wall. Neff is not Smith.

The Lincoln Memorial and tourists

Abe and admirers

He had been in Vietnam for about two months. He died in Quang Tri province on April 20, 1968, from “wounds to the body from hostile rifle fire while on patrol,” a few months before I was born. He had been born just 19 years before. He was a marine, private first class, hometown Danielsville, Penn., probably not far from where my dad’s dad was born, the land of the Pennsylvania Dutch. I see no resemblance in the photo, but the furrows of our DNA would probably say differently.

I moved on, walking some, jogging some, dodging tourists, up to the Lincoln Memorial, which I make a point of visiting whenever I find myself in the nation’s capital. The great man’s Gettysburg and second inaugural addresses somehow read better in stone. I pause always at the irony of the “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” bit. I read slowly, remarking at the rhetorical power squeezed into so few words. Like the optical power squeezed into cross-section the size of a slice of apple pie, refocusing the vision – of Founding Fathers and the great space telescope – in their times of greatest need.