My social media feed is littered with repostings of the first photos from the recently deployed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). There is a new clarity to these pictures, true. However, I am just not as wowed by these images as some are. That’s not because I lack a fascination with the sky — far from it. My entire interest in science began by looking at the crystal clear night skies over Connecticut woods during winter — where it was possible to see the Milky Way with my eyes alone.
So, I am not lacking in appreciate of these new JWST images. It’s just that my mind still hasn’t been able to wrap itself around the Hubble Deep Field image. That picture of 3000 galaxies covering a “black” part of the sky that is the size of a grain of sand at arms length is now 26 years old. Plenty of time to be part of the culture — though, sadly, it’s not. (I have, however, had a scientist discuss it to a layperson in a recent play I’ve written.)
The latest JWST images? If I can’t get my head wrapped around the Hubble Deep Field, this is just more of the same. I simply don’t have an intuitive sense of the numbers when they get this big: I’m already in overload. The needle is already pegged into the red zone; what comes after that?
Of course, to professional astronomers and astrophysicists the additional data is more than welcomed. Also, the ability to spend just a few hours of JWST scope time compared to the weeks it took to get the Hubble Deep Field image allows many more images to be taken and more scope access to other scientists. (There were arguments on whether to even devote precious Hubble time to taking the original Deep Field image.) The easier the access to the instrument, the more bold one can be in trying new things.
I do have an awe from these images, however. Just not from their visual properties. My awe comes from the existence of the instrument that created these photos. The science behind the JWST is fairly basic (at least for the 21st century) and I can explain it to 8th graders: the finite speed of light creating a way to look backwards in time, the need to go infrared, the telescope placement at a point in space we call L2 (in honor of Joseph-Louis Lagrange), the requirement for a space reflector. What is hard to explain about this project is the engineering.
This instrument was 25 years in the making; that’s 2.5 times longer than it took humans to go to the Moon from scratch. The telescope’s design and construction required thousands and thousands of hours by thousands of people. There is no single human representative of this mission. When I was at NASA, the standard joke was that working on JWST — with its endless overruns and dangers of cancellation — would be a career killer but that’s okay since you’d be able to retire before project completion anyway.
And this instrument was expensive, $10B, with a bad tendency to gobble up monies from other missions and projects. (High profile projects at NASA are known to do that.) Keeping the telescope cold required placing it far from Earth, many times past the Moon’s orbit. This distant position prevents any type of human — or even robotic — repair if something doesn’t work correctly. (The Hubble had to be repaired after it was launched and in orbit.) And, on top of all of this, you had to place this optically delicate instrument on top of a rocket that, at launch, would vibrate the hell out of the thing. Oh, yes, throughout all this, you had to keep Congress happy — and from my time with NASA, I can tell you that’s not always the easiest task.
So I really appreciate what Nova did in this documentary: contextualizing the largest obstacle in the most advanced projects. That obstacle is the human itself, with its tendency to become easily bored, with its tendency to not understand complexity without points of focus (there are neither astronauts nor grand design engineers in this story), and with its tendency to become impatient. When people look at these stunning JWST photos — and they are stunning — I hope there’s also a little thought about what is on the other side of that lens. We frail, limited humans found a way to apply our collective knowledge in a collective way over a collection of time. In that sense, the James Webb Space Telescope is as unique and awe-inspiring as any of the images it will be taking.