Like A.C.M. who shared today's story, I had to do a double-take:
The title of the article, from The Atlantic, says it all. But here's the details:
NASA’s new space telescope has had a rough go. Name a problem, and this telescope—meant to be the most powerful of its kind, a worthy successor to the famous Hubble—has faced it: poor management, technical errors, budget overruns, schedule delays, and a pandemic. So, naturally, the people responsible for the telescope’s safety are now thinking about pirates.
The topic came up at a recent meeting about NASA’s James Webb space telescope, named for a former administrator of the space agency. Later this year, the telescope will travel by ship to a launch site in South America, passing through the Panama Canal to reach French Guiana. Webb, with a mirror as tall as a two-story building and a protective shield the size of a tennis court, is too large for a plane. Its departure date will be kept secret, someone said at the meeting, to protect against pirates who might want to capture the precious cargo and hold it for ransom. Christopher Conselice, an astrophysicist at the University of Manchester who attended the meeting, was at first baffled by the concern because, well, pirates, but it quickly clicked.
The article goes on to note a couple of incidents of telescope-piracy:
One of the earliest known calamities of this category occurred at the Allegheny Observatory, in Pittsburgh, in 1872. The astronomer Samuel Langley, the observatory’s director, had just returned from a conference when his employees rushed him to the top of the building. The lens of the observatory’s telescope had been stolen. “The story goes that Langley receives a letter in the mail from the foul fiend, and he says, ‘Meet me in the woods behind the observatory at midnight, or you’ll never see your lens again,’” Lou Coban, the observatory’s manager, told me. Langley and the thief met and “argued into the night”; the astronomer refused to pay the thief’s ransom, believing that it would spur “lens-napping” at other institutions. Langley managed to persuade the thief to divulge the location of the lens in exchange for keeping the man’s identity out of the papers. The hardware was found stuffed in the trash behind a nearby hotel, so scratched up that the observatory had to send it off for repairs.
Another incident mentioned by the article is the transport of a telescope from Holland to Hawaii. The captain of the ship carrying the telescope diverted to Ecuador to deliver a load of explosives, then showed up late to Hawaii, where his fees were docked due to the lateness of the shipment. The captain, angry, demanded full payment until a court order accusing him of piracy on the high seas unless he delivered the instrument forced his hand.
Obviously, the article is focused on the matter of piracy while the telescope is still on the planet. And I have to wonder: the fact that such a concern would be raised at all suggests that NASA may know of "actors" that might attempt to do so, and those actors could be just about anyone: state actors, non-state actors, extra-territorial actors, and so on. So on the one hand - here comes the high octane speculation - I wonder if a "narrative" is being prepared along the following lines: "Oh... too bad, our telescope was stolen. We're not officially 'blind,'" when in fact an alleged theft would be a perfect way to take the whole operation black.
But there's another possibility, an even wilder speculation: what if they are concerned about piracy "out there" in space itself? In other words, they're acting like they know there's something to see out there, and they're also acting like someone doesn't want them to see it.
And then there's the matter of the name of the telescope, the James Webb telescope. James Webb was far from just "a former administrator of the space agency". Webb was in fact the director of NASA during the all-important Apollo lunar mission era. It was Webb, in fact, who shut down the "NASA Nazis" when Arthur Rudolf proposed that NASA's Nazis simply build the Saturn V booster "in house" and avoid the whole defense contractor network, when they - NASA's Nazis - became frustrated at the slow progress on the booster. So yes, call me suspicious of the whole narrative, and why NASA is seriously entertaining the possibility of piracy.
See you on the flip side...