‘A thoroughly unexpected visit to NASA’

Written By: Art Donovan

Last week NASA Program Director, Dr. Eric Smith invited me to a special viewing of the spanking new, ‘James Webb Space Telescope’ located for now at the Goddard Space Flight Center in 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 it’s prime viewing position.

The “JWST”, as it’s referred to, 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 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 James Webb Space Telescope 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!”

My host, 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 telescope in person. #26 is it’s earth-bound home for the moment and essentially it’s one gigantic “Clean Room”, the second largest clean room in the world. 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 here at Goddard is spotless including the air- down to ‘microscopic’. On the top of the building are massive, one-story tall, air filters that cover the entire roof, edge to edge. Not even the slightest, microscopic piece of dust can ever enter that sacred work space 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 that overlooks the area where the 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 the 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 in all of its’ metallic glory, as it was positioned only a couple of yards away from the glass.

The view, so stunning, almost physically pushed me back. The JWST doesn’t look like any other telescope you’ve ever seen. It’s 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 that it will soon be sent over 1.5 million miles away into deep space, called L-2 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 the programs’ 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 that all three 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. 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 listed among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in The World. In October, 2012, he was once again named by Time magazine 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, eight billion dollar telescope. The JWST will be “Eyes On” at the very furthest reaches of Space by using the Infra-Red Spectrum and will see further 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 it’s mirror will be 7 times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. The sections can be moved into any delicate array of positions for perfect “eye sight”. 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. But why the gold plating? I guarantee you 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 infra red wavelengths in the most efficient way possible. Also, it’s 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 those exoplanets that are fit for human habitation in centuries to come. Thus the fantasy of science fiction is again poised to become a realty. Once in space, the JWST will unfold it’s 18 segment-mirrors and deploy the large layers of specially developed heat shields to prevent any unwanted infra red radiation from reaching the telescope’s sensors. The JWST mirrors needs dead cold to operate and I don’t mean ‘Waiting on Madison Ave for the M2 in February-type cold. I mean cold where atoms themselves barley move.

After viewing the Mirror, Dr. Smith then escorted me around the entire complex of Building #26. The NASA testing rooms house some of the oddest and impressive looking space equipment you could image. One room, a full four-stories tall, is the ‘Large Sound’ testing room. This chamber is used to test equipment for really, REALLY loud noise and at skull-crushing volumes to reproduce the noise that rockets make during lift off. At the top of this room is a giant Sub-Woofer 12′ in diameter. Below that, the tweeter- a mere 6′ in diameter. 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” (gravity) Forces during lift off. Another room keeps the massive, “Atmospheric Testing Chamber” Inside it, 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 cell phones. This is hard core science! The crews know that once this telescope is in orbit, there is no opportunity to ever fix a bug or replace a broken apart.

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 it’s main mirror had 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 ‘Arianne 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 it’s potential. They describe it very well in laymen’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 historical project.

October 31st, 2018 is when JWST launches. I’ll be watching and cheering like a school kid- online of course and thinking about my visit to NASA. That I actually saw our faces reflected in the very mirror that will show us the furthest reaches of our Galaxy and humanities’ possible future home centuries into the future is a strange and humbling thought.

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