An Unexpected Visit to NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

Last week NASA Program Director, Dr. Eric Smith invited me to a special viewing of the spanking new, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) located for now at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The invitation came quite unexpectedly and I had only three days to get to Maryland and see the telescope when it would be in its prime viewing position (on March 31).

The JWST is named after the NASA administrator of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions from 1961 to 1968. Since the Webb telescope will be shipped off to NASA in Houston, Texas next month for its final, space launch preparations, this would be the only opportunity to see it up close (or as close as any non-NASA person can ever get to it).

Once down in Maryland, I checked in at the front gate of the GSFC and waited in the office to be escorted by Dr. Smith into the ultra-secure complex where the JWST was being housed. The check-in itself was like something out of Men In Black—cordial but with a strong element of “Don’t you even dare violate our protocols!”

Art Donovan with NASA's Dr. Eric Smith and Dr. Bill Ochs

Art Donovan with NASA’s Dr. Eric Smith and Dr. Bill Ochs, Photo: Laura Betz/NASA

My host and NASA legend, Dr. Smith is a most personable man and immediately put me at ease. We drove through the unremarkable looking complex to Building #26 where I was about to view the JWST in person. Building #26, the telescope’s earthbound home for the moment, is essentially one gigantic “clean room,” the second largest clean room in the world, in fact. You’ve seen photos of clean rooms, like high tech operating theaters, where they make computer chips and such, and where the tech staff pads around in those full body white suits and helmets. Everything in this room at Goddard is spotless, including the air, down to microscopic levels. Massive, one-story-tall air filters cover the entire roof, edge to edge. Not even the slightest, microscopic piece of dust can enter that sacred workspace below.

Inside #26 there is a large reception lobby with photos on the walls all around. Images of space race legends and NASA history are everywhere. Dr. Smith quickly escorted me to the clean room viewing gallery on the third floor. The gallery has a full-room, glass window overlooking the area where technicians are busy with the telescope. As I walked up to the glass, I was half-expecting to see the JWST draped in work tarps somewhere way in back. As I have never been even close to such a facility, my only point of reference for a place like this is an art studio or perhaps a construction site—hence my notion of “the tarps.” But upon approaching the window I was startled. I was face-to-face with the primary mirror of the telescope, positioned in all its metallic glory only a couple of yards away from the glass!

Back of the JWST

Back of the JWST, Photo: Art Donovan

The view, so stunning, almost physically pushed me back. The JWST doesn’t look like any other telescope you’ve ever seen. Its primary mirror consists of high-polished, gold-plated sections in 18 honeycomb-shaped plates, like an open umbrella and totaling a whopping four-stories tall. It’s brilliant and almost hard to look at. The surprising thing was that it was so…so…sexy! It’s actually a magnificent piece of modern sculpture.

Focusing on one of its hexagonal segments, I saw myself perfectly reflected back in that mirror-like surface, all the time thinking it would soon be sent more than 1.5 million miles away into deep space—called L2 orbit—never, ever to return.

Dr. Smith has been working full-time on the production of this telescope since 1996, along with Program Manager Bill Ochs and Lead Astrophysicist Dr. John C. Mather. I had the honor of speaking with all three, who just happened to be in the viewing gallery that morning. It wasn’t by coincidence these men were gathered there at the same time. That morning was the best opportunity that the telescope’s open, golden mirror was facing the gallery window at such close range and for just a couple of brief hours while the technicians worked on the rear of the mirror.

Art Donovan with Dr. John C. Mather

Art Donovan with Dr. John C. Mather, Photo: Laura Betz/NASA

Like his colleagues, Dr. Mather’s enthusiasm for the project is contagious. You may have heard his name before. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in helping to prove the Big Bang Theory. He is also listed among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. In October, 2012, Dr. Mather was once again named by Time as one of 25 Most Influential People in Space.

NASA certainly knew what they were doing when they put these men in charge of their new, $8 billion telescope. The JWST will be “eyes on” at the very farthest reaches of space by using the infrared spectrum. It will see farther back in space and time than any other telescope has ever been capable.

The JWST’s huge, primary mirror is made of 18 interlocked, gold-plated beryllium sections, and once it opens up in space its mirror will be seven-times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. The sections can be moved into any delicate array of positions for perfect eyesight. Aligning the primary mirror segments to act as a single large mirror means each mirror is aligned to 1/10,000th the thickness of a human hair.

JWST Mirror 33

JWST Mirror 33, Photo: NASA/Drew Noel

But why the gold plating? I guarantee it’s not just to make it pretty. The atoms-thick layer of gold is vacuum chamber plated onto the beryllium panels and is used to detect infrared wavelengths in the most efficient way possible. Also, its multiple honeycomb mirrors are polished so smooth and flat that if you stretched it out across the United States the largest bump would be no bigger than two inches tall. With this miraculous sensitivity, it will be the first instrument to fully analyze the exoplanets in our galaxy, the Milky Way (the distances to these discoveries are almost incomprehensible).

So far, and with the aid of the Kepler Space Observatory, the total exoplanet tally now stands at about 3,200 objects. These exoplanets orbit suns similar to our own and, with the help of the JWST, NASA may actually locate exoplanets fit for human habitation in centuries to come. The fantasy of science fiction is again poised to become a reality.

Once in space, the JWST will unfold its 18 segment-mirrors and deploy the large layers of specially developed heat shields to prevent any unwanted infrared radiation from reaching the telescope’s sensors. The JWST mirrors need dead cold to operate and I don’t mean waiting-on-Madison-Avenue-for-the-M2-in-February-type cold. I mean cold where atoms themselves barely move.

After viewing the Mirror, Dr. Smith then escorted me around the entire complex of Building #26. NASA’s testing rooms house some of the oddest and most impressive looking space equipment you could imagine. One room, a full four-stories tall, is the large Sound Testing chamber. This room is used to test equipment for really, REALLY loud noise, and at skull-crushing volumes to reproduce the sounds rockets make during liftoff. At the top of this room is a giant sub-woofer, 12 feet in diameter. Below that, the tweeter is a mere 6 feet in diameter.

Then off we go to the Shaker Room where they place the equipment to be tested on large, mechanical tables that shake the living hell out of devices to see if anything at all comes loose. Then the Centrifuge Room. You’ve seen the old films of astronauts training in these things. It’s a large capsule that whips around at the end of a long arm, like a torturous amusement park ride. It’s a frightening-looking device used to reproduce g-force (gravity) during liftoff.

Another room keeps the massive, atmospheric testing chamber inside it, where they can reproduce the actual vacuum of space and at blazing temperatures that mimic being near the sun, and also at deep-space temperatures close to absolute zero.

Dozens of NASA technicians are scurrying around the complex at any given time. Their focus is absolutely incredible. No small talk or texting on cellphones. This is hardcore science! The crews know that once this telescope is in orbit, there will be no opportunity to fix a bug or replace a broken part.

Six of the 18 JWST mirror segments

Six of the 18 JWST mirror segments, Photo: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Givens

In a way, NASA was lucky with the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronauts were able to fly up to it, via the Space Shuttle, and repair it when its main mirror failed to produce clear images. No chance of that this time. The JWST, after 27 years of labor, must be absolutely perfect in every possible way. The JWST project is so large, so expensive and so complex that it’s a joint-country project. Canada has supplied the fine guidance systems and the European Space Agency has purchased the “ride”—a French Ariane 5 rocket. Ariane 5 is the European ‘heavy lift’ launch vehicle and it will take off from French Guiana. I learned all these things from Dr. Smith who has the details (and a million other facts) on the tip of this tongue.

As you can imagine, both Dr. Smith and Dr. Mather love to talk about the JWST and its potential. They describe it very well in layman’s terms, but are unaware that they often slip into “astrophysicist-speak.” When they do this, I nod my head politely and knowingly, as if I actually understood anything at all of what they just said. (In a way, they are kind of like grownup role models for the TV show Big Bang Theory.)

But what was so surprising is the disarming honesty and ease of these great men—a graceful demeanor. These scientists are under deadlines and technical pressures that we could not even begin to imagine, and they do it all with such professional ease and home-style warmth. Perhaps that ease comes from being at the very pinnacle of their field and successfully creating such a historic project.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches October 31, 2018. I’ll be watching and cheering like a school kid—online of course and thinking about my visit to see it. Knowing I actually saw our faces reflected in the very mirror that will show us the furthest reaches of our galaxy and humanity’s possible home centuries from now is a strange and humbling thought.

Art Donovan reflected in the JWST

Art Donovan looks into the future, Photo: Art Donovan

The experience was like being invited by Galileo himself to peer through the eyepiece of his first telescope more than 400 years ago.

Art Donovan is an artist, lighting designer, author and curator. He curated the world’s first steampunk art exhibition at the The Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford in England. He is also the author of three books on steampunk art and design. He lives with his wife, Leslie Tarbell Donovan, in Southampton. Find more at donovandesign.com.

Featured photo (top of page): This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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