Manufacturing Mayday

Production glitches send Airbus into a tailspin

6 min read

What has gone so badly amiss at Europe’s Airbus manufacturing consortium and with its A380 superjumbo airliner? Just a year and a half ago, when the A380 made a dramatic demonstration flight at the Paris Air Show, Airbus seemed to have the world in its hands. For the second year in a row, it was outdistancing Boeing in obtaining new aircraft orders, and it had nearly 160 orders for the A380 in hand.

Then suddenly just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The announcement of A380 production delays last June sent Airbus shares tumbling—the one-day drop was comparable to Enron’s following the disclosure of that company’s off-the-book partnerships. After further A380 production delays were announced at the end of September, several major companies canceled or delayed standing orders: Virgin Atlantic pushed back its purchase of six A380s for four years, for example, and FedEx said it would buy 15 Boeing 777 freighters rather than the 10 of the A380 freighter version it had planned to get from Airbus. Meanwhile, British BAE Systems got rid of the 20 percent share it had in EADS, the parent company of Airbus [see timeline, ”Airbus’s Wild Ride”].

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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.

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