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Instead, the boat sailed to Holland, where it picked up a shipment of dangerous explosives, presumably for a side job. The boat then idled outside the Panama Canal, purportedly awaiting special clearance for its explosive cargo, before heading to Ecuador, where it unloaded the stuff. The JCMT team had no line of communication to the captain during this quite unauthorized trek. Officials could track the boat’s whereabouts only by frantically checking shipping ledgers. And all the while, JCMT’s steel exterior sat piled up on the boat’s deck.
After 10 long weeks, the boat eventually made it to Hawaii. By then, the penalty fees that the captain had incurred for the late arrival nearly matched the payment he was owed for the delivery itself. The captain, floating just outside territorial waters, sent a threatening message to shore, Hills told me: “Either you pay me in full or I’m just going to dump this steel into the sea and say goodbye.” The JCMT team managed to get a court order that instructed the captain, under laws that governed “piracy on the high seas,” to give up the boat. According to Hills, the Coast Guard delivered the document to the rogue boat, nailed the paper to the mast of the ship—a maritime custom, apparently—and arrested the captain at gunpoint. Hills suspects that the man was not paid for the rather subpar job.
Most incidents of this nature have not been so dramatic. In 2002, telescope mirrors shipped to Chile arrived damaged and broken, an unfortunate result of the long journey from Europe. NASA also has a lengthy history of going incognito when transporting its expensive, universe-exploring machines. In most cases, the telescopes traveling in disguise arrive at their destinations without issue. Karen Knierman, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, told me that in 2003 she spotted a truck on the highway that turned out to be carrying the Spitzer space telescope to Florida, the only indication of the hidden freight being a small NASA logo on the vehicle. But in 2012, a trailer carrying a NASA telescope disappeared on its way from Minnesota to Texas. When NASA officials panicked, an employee from the trucking company set off in search of the missing cargo and found the driver asleep in the truck, with the telescope-toting trailer nowhere in sight. It was eventually discovered abandoned at a car wash in Dallas, and the driver claimed that it had been stolen.
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There’s no particular reason to think something untoward will happen to the James Webb telescope. And the voyage to South America isn’t even the most dangerous part of the mission. Nor is the rocket launch, which one scientist described to me as “quite literally putting all our eggs in one basket, and then attaching this basket to about 2,000 tons of high explosives.” For scientists and engineers, the most stressful event will come as Webb travels to its orbit, 1 million miles from Earth, and begins to deploy itself in a complicated, automated sequence of hundreds of tiny maneuvers. The telescope can sustain only so many glitches in this process. If something goes wrong, there’s no fixing it. The Hubble space telescope, which launched in 1990 and orbits a relatively cozy 340 miles from home, was made for visits from astronauts to repair the observatory. Webb is not.