The space shuttle Atlantis finally lifted off its launchpad to tend to its space-station construction duties. But the launch delays brought on by concerns that tropical storm Ernesto might turn into a hurricane and wreak havoc on the spacecraft raise the question: Why is NASA’s premier launch facility, and the only NASA facility that conducts manned launches, located in such a disaster-prone region?

Hurricane-related problems have become more frequent at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in recent years, as the east coast of the United States transitions from a decades-long period of historically low storm activity. In 2004 Hurricane Frances prompted NASA to evacuate Kennedy, tore hundreds of panels off the Vehicle Assembly Building, and damaged other structures. In 2005 Hurricane Wilma forced another evacuation of Kennedy. With the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warning that we can expect more hurricanes with higher winds in the future, there is a real fear that Kennedy may get hit by a storm that its buildings simply can’t handle. Irreplaceable facilities and hardware--including spacecraft--could be lost.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions
Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

Keep Reading ↓Show less