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Webb: The Space Cathedral

James Webb Space Telescope,Cosmos
Pauline Acalin
July 9, 20213:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

The necessity of generational projects reaching fruition.  

Supercluster recently visited the mythical James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop Grumman's cleanroom facility in Redondo Beach, CA while the spacecraft is in its final months of being Earth-tethered and as NASA makes final preparations for launch. We also got to meet and chat with the devoted team members who are overseeing the flagship mission.

Webb, known as the successor to the beloved Hubble Space Telescope, was envisioned to complement and expand on the groundbreaking science collected by Hubble and other observatories, aiming to reshape our understanding of the universe on a fundamental level.  

I arrived early for the morning viewing which had been scheduled in tandem with the final deployment test of Webb’s primary mirror, a milestone showing that the extremely complex hardware would unfold properly in space. This would be the last time we’d be able to see the 6.5-meter mirror open on Earth as the side panels would soon be stowed and shipped for launch from French Guiana later this year. 

After a short walk through the campus from the main lobby to Webb’s viewing room, our group, comprised of myself and two other reporters, were escorted up the stairs of an unmarked and rather mundane building, considering the massive irreplaceable machine housed within. Once through the door and a few paces inside, you'll find yourself on the set of a $100 million tentpole sci-fi movie. Except it's entirely real and the budget is in the billions. And there are no reshoots. The massive golden mirrors put Hollywood and its Oscar statues to shame. Webb is surrounded by its human builders and caretakers––an actual hero team of prominent engineers, scientists, and NASA's gifted photographer, Chris Gunn.

“The immense distances to the stars and the galaxies mean that we see everything in space in the past, some as they were before the Earth came to be. Telescopes are time machines.” -Carl Sagan  

Pauline Acalin visits Webb in California

The cleanroom is bustling and buzzing with technicians in their clean white bunny suits,  carefully pouring over an actual time machine. In a recent update from the Webb team, they kindly reminded us that their real-life Transformer "will study every phase in the history of our universe, including the first luminous glows after the creation of the cosmos, the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, and the evolution of our own solar system."

No pressure.

As I stood staring at the towering marvel, for a fleeting moment I envisioned the spacecraft suspended in the void right in front of me, silently collecting ancient light. And then my brain was like “ok that’s enough” and the vivid, gratifying daydream vanished. It was… transcendent.

I met with Klaus Pontoppidan, Project Scientist for Webb, and listened as he shared his reflections on the project he’s been deeply immersed in for a decade. As we stood facing the telescope, Pontoppidan offered a compelling correlation.  

“Sometimes, I compare the building of something like Webb,” he paused, “…a mission this size is like building a cathedral.”  

Referencing a historical novel, the scientist continued, “I really liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It’s a story of the building of a gothic cathedral over generations. There were people working on that cathedral their whole lives, their whole careers. The architect, the builders starting from nothing, they didn’t get to see their project to the finish line. Somebody else had to take over.”  

The parallel makes sense. Flagship endeavors of this magnitude are sometimes generational projects, and those involved maintain a sense of higher purpose and see them out as far as they can, grappling with the inevitable yet sometimes necessary complications. 

“That’s a hard job, right?” Pontoppidan asserted, “To argue for why we should spend money on something now that won’t see fruition for decades.”  

JWST by Chris Gunn

It can be argued that no larger hurdle exists in the space industry than the completion of an expensive project that is centered around technology, that when described, sounds like science fiction. Especially to congress. Take the Hubble Space Telescope––its culmination being anything but swift, and the struggle the mission faced for the public’s embrace amidst its lengthy, pricey, and ever-changing timeline.

Whether or not we realize it, our acquaintanceship with the data collected by Hubble is woven into our lives, from the jaw-dropping imagery we set as wallpapers to our devices and add to our textbooks to simply scrolling on social media until seeing the inevitable Hubble shot. But most paramount of course is the impact Hubble’s data continues to have on the scientific community––discoveries that have created entirely new fields of study, mind-bending theories like the age and rate of expansion of the universe, and the existence of massive black holes at the centers of galaxies, to name just a few.  

Yet, depending on the generation to which you belong, you may or may not have lived through the delays weathered by the Hubble project that spanned well over two decades, from funding through the long-awaited delivery of its first crisp image transmitted back to Earth.  

“Because of the nature of these generational projects, you pay forward. We’ll see this one through,” Pontoppidan emphasized, nodding toward Webb, "but then let’s work on applying the lessons learned to the next generational project.”  

Hubble’s timeline was plagued with technical delays, budget issues, and the troublesome recognition that the in-orbit telescope had a faulty mirror. With the dragging on of incessant complications, society had grown increasingly impatient to the point of intolerance and the general perception shifted to the mission perhaps no longer being worth the cost. Consider humanity’s loss had the Hubble program been abandoned at ANY stage. 

“The legacy of a mission such as this is not what we’re looking at now,” Klaus said as he gestured toward the telescope, “it’s not the hardware, it’s what it will do––the data and the understanding of the universe we’re going to get out of it long after it’s gone. We’ll have that knowledge. I feel so incredibly privileged to be able to be part of a project such as this that can make progress in our understanding of our origins in nature on a fundamental level.”  

"The job is by no means done. We will look for the boundary between the solar system and the interstellar medium, and then we'll voyage on forever in the dark between the stars.” -Carl Sagan  

Cosmic exploration programs which span generations are monumental pursuits, a grand investment of time and funds to step out on the frontier––a proverbial place of great unknowns, needed failures, and hardship. “Let’s make sure there is one, even if it’s thirty years in the future, that we contribute to the fact that it’ll happen," says Pontoppidan as he turned toward the observatory, “Somebody did this for Webb. Some are still around, some are retired and some didn’t live to see it.”

Pre-Order the JWST Mission Patch at the shop.

Pauline Acalin
July 9, 20213:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)