Let Us Reflect in Wonder & Hope for the James Webb Space Telescope

We’ve Never Done Anything Like Any of This” – A Project Engineer

Son of Hubble

The Hubble Telescope has been the most amazing, gratifying, useful thing of modern science. Off to a rough start with lenses imprecisely ground (an error resulting in one part of the team using meters, the other using inches. Imagine that.). But all was well once an equally amazing rescue mission was launched,  installing “contact lenses” on the telescope, with perfect results as an outcome.

I hit the Hubble web site and similar sites regularly, still amazed at the science and the beauty just waiting for you almost every day. Have a look yourself:


Hubble has lasted far longer and done far more than anyone ever dared hope. What we have learned – and are still learning – is beyond measurement. This is what it’s all about when it comes to exploration and the most basic sense of curiosity about the cosmos in which we live.

Now, multiply all that by about 100 times – – in some ways, 1,000 times -and you begin to understand the potential for the James Webb Space Telescope.

29 Days of Terror

So now, in a sense, the easy part is over. The telescope has been launched. Those working with it refer to the period between launch and arrival at the designated parking spot as the “29 days of terror.” Some of a calmer ones simply refer to it as “29 days on the edge.” Literally hundreds of things could go wrong waiting for it to arrive and deploy/unfold. More on that shortly.

But first, it is a fair question to ask as to why this type of space telescope is being launched and while we are at it, why should the rest of us care anyway which type of telescope is deployed.

Why This Telescope? And Why Should You Care?

The concept of the Webb telescope goes back decades. Something like this was always envisioned as the next step in our exploration of the cosmos. Planning started long before the technology existed to pull this off. This thing is designed to build on what Hubble has taught us and to take us the rest of the distance, in time and space, to the beginning of the Universe (or close to it).

As ordinary citizens, I think we should care about this, for several reasons. One, any project on this scale carries significant risk and opportunity cost. We should be interested that the right choices are being made. For what it’s worth, I think the right choices have, in fact, been made. Time will tell.

The Numbers are Already Mind Boggling

To give you a feel of just how big a deal this is, and why the choices are so important, let’s look at some Webb numbers:

  • $10 billion. The cost – so far. BILLIONS more than originally budgeted.
  • 25 years. How long under development. YEARS longer than projected.
  • Billions of Years. How far into the past we will be able to see with Webb. Almost to the very beginning of everything as we know it.
  • 10,000. The number of people involved in this program since the beginning.
Wait – There is Still More
  • 1 Million Miles. How far away this thing will park from Earth. It is a place chosen for maximum telescope effectiveness. It is also too far out for any repair or rescue missions. Once launched, we were in for the whole thing – no do overs or mulligans for this one.
  • The number of large, gold-plated panels that must unfold, origami like, to power the telescope once it arrives. No one has ever designed anything so large, complex, and delegate and planned to have it unfold like an interstellar butterfly.
  • The number of discrete events that must happen perfectly for the telescope to travel, park, deploy, and begin operations. The team refers to them as 344 potential points of Failure. Failure of any one of them could doom the mission. Think the team feels a little pressure? Yeah, I think so, too.
  • 21 feet. The diameter of the main mirror. How powerful is this thing? If a bumble bee were to hover into the line of sight 240,000 miles away, Webb would pick it up. The infrared imager will peer through interstellar dust and debris to show us what is out there.

Plan on being amazed and surprised repeatedly. The scientists are in exactly that frame of mind. These are people whose entire professional lives have been invested in this mission and they say they have no idea what all we may discover. But answers are out there, waiting on us to show up.

Why Do This at All? Don’t We Have Other Needs to be Met?

Ah, there is the question. We do it because this is what great civilizations and worthy countries do. They accept impossible challenges and expand us as a species in terms of our understanding and our capabilities.

People always say this kind of thing is a waste of money, that we have more pressing needs close to home. We certainly do have such needs, but I beg to differ on the conclusion that we should wait on the big science efforts. Life is not a set of sequential steps. We don’t live one step at a time. And resources that did not go into space would not necessarily go into these other needs.

I fully agree we should be doing more for each other and for our planet, but I reject that means we cannot do Webb level things. I will be as crushed as anyone if one of those 344 points fails, and this turns out to have been for naught. But if that happens, back to the drawing board to try again.

The Universe waits to share all that knowledge. Let’s get on with it.

A Footnote: It should be acknowledged that while Webb had an exceptional career and made major contributions, some are not pleased that the space telescope is named after him. There was a period back in the 1950’s in which he may have been involved in efforts to root out people considered undesirable in the State Department because they may have been gay. The record is not clear. Some say he was. An independent investigation says there is no evidence this was the case.

This is a reality, but one that does not, in my view, erase all else that he did, especially with unproven charges. Part of our conversations these days is how best to call out when someone falls short, without ignoring all else they stood for or accomplished. Webb makes that cut for me, warts and all.

A Second Footnote: This posting may well be full of typos. It is hard to type with all your fingers and toes crossed. They shall remain crossed until we start getting images from Webb.

               Bill Clontz

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4 replies to Let Us Reflect in Wonder & Hope for the James Webb Space Telescope

  1. I have been amazed as well as enthralled watching the reports on 60 Minutes and others about this project. My simple mind can’t fathom how they will be able to see back in time. I mean how is that even possible? Back. In. Time. What does that even mean??? But I am excited to see what happens as I try and imagine what those scientist are going through right now as they wait and wait.

  2. I see in the news that everything seems to be unfolding and working for the Webb Space telescope. Simply amazing to think about it all working. Now we wait and wait and wait as it travels to its position in the universe and begins to send back information. A true marvel.

    • It really is remarkable. Might pull this thing off, yet! The agony is that it will be Summer before we start getting regular photos and data back.

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