They’re bringing us answers on the Big Bang

A crew of thousands saw their work culminate on the Christmas Day launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Their stories are as fascinating as the images they soon hope to see come into focus.


National News

December 30, 2021 - 10:34 AM

Just like drivers sometimes use snow to clean their car mirrors in winter, two Exelis Inc. engineers are practicing "snow cleaning'" on a test telescope mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Photo by (Chris Gunn /NASA/TNS)

LOS ANGELES — For some people, it’s a memoir or a work of fiction; others, their first company or app. For Scott Willoughby, it’s a more than 13,000-pound telescope that must unfold while in space and work in cryogenic temperatures.

“Webb is my middle child,” Willoughby said of the James Webb Space Telescope — his baby of 12 years — which launched Christmas Day from Kourou, French Guiana, on South America’s northern coast. It is a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has observed distant stars and galaxies for more than 30 years but can’t see the first galaxies formed in the universe as Webb will be able to.

Willoughby, the telescope’s program manager at aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman Corp., is part of a cadre of thousands of aerospace workers across NASA, Northrop and other firms who have devoted a huge part of their careers — some inadvertently — to this singular mission.

Their work spans nearly two decades, including about a decade of delays, numerous technical challenges and a hurricane that almost derailed a testing round. It culminated with Saturday’s launch, which Willoughby likened to seeing his two daughters leave home for college.

“When your kids leave home for that momentous occasion to start that adult life … you want them to do that and be successful, but you also want to follow them,” he said. “But you can’t.”

“I was only going to be on it for four to five years,” said Sandra Irish, NASA’s lead structures engineer for Webb. She has now worked on the program for 16 years.

Irish remembers crying as she watched the ship carrying the telescope, which was transported to the launch site in French Guiana from Seal Beach, California, pull into the harbor in October.

“Sometimes we like dull moments,” she said, reflecting on her years of work throughout Webb’s development and testing — before adding that there weren’t any.

Inside NASA’s giant thermal vacuum chamber, called Chamber A, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the James Webb Space Telescope’s Pathfinder backplane test model, is being prepared for its cryogenic test. (NASA/TNS)

The Webb telescope is designed to look for faint infrared light — the first light to streak across the dark universe 13.8 billion years ago — that will allow scientists to understand more about the origins of the universe. It has a mirror nearly three times larger than that of the Hubble Space Telescope and a five-layer sun shield unlike anything ever built before.

“There wasn’t anything else out there that I could look at and improve on,” said Jim Flynn, director of vehicle engineering for the telescope at Northrop Grumman, who has been on the program for 17 years. The sun shield, made of a film material called Kapton that’s covered in a special coating, helps keep the telescope cool.

Much of the work on the telescope was groundbreaking, including the production of 18 hexagonal, lightweight mirrors and ensuring that Webb can function fully at cryogenic temperatures. Over the years, costs ballooned to $10 billion (earlier estimates ranged from $2 billion to $8 billion), and development setbacks delayed the launch date.

“I’m the dinosaur,” said Charlie Atkinson, who has the longest tenure on Webb at Northrop Grumman: He started on the program in 1998 and now serves as its chief engineer.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s Engineering Design Unit (EDU) primary mirror segment, coated with gold by Quantum Coating Incorporated. (NASA/TNS)

Webb’s development lifespan has traced the trajectory of the lives that merged, took new paths and blossomed as its longest-serving creators built it up, year in and year out.

Careers lighted up. Friendships formed. Kids grew up and went to college, and still the telescope was in the making.

Atkinson’s twin daughters were born in 2000, while he was working on the proposal for Webb. Co-workers at the time still remember when he’d say, “I gotta go home, it’s bath night.”