If all goes according to plan, the largest and most powerful telescope ever built will launch into space in 2021 and provide unprecedented perspectives of our solar system and distant galaxies.
The telescope is fittingly named after James Webb, who shepherded an unparalleled age of space exploration when he led NASA during its Mercury and Gemini programs and the beginning of the Apollo program. He wasn’t a scientist. He wasn’t even an engineer. But Webb’s steady oversight and unwavering support of NASA during its most critical period is why his name is attached to the next big thing in space.
He Almost Didn’t Take the Job
The 110th anniversary of James Webb’s birth is Oct. 7, only days after NASA celebrates its 60th anniversary. The man and the agency will always be linked, but when President John Kennedy asked him to lead NASA in 1961, Webb had reservations about taking the job.
A North Carolina native, Webb was an attorney and businessman before serving as director of the Bureau of Budget and as undersecretary of state under President Harry Truman. Despite not having a background in science or engineering, Kennedy thought Webb’s managerial and political skills were perfect for the job of leading NASA in its space race with the Soviet Union. Webb would accept Kennedy’s offer but under the condition that he wouldn’t run NASA as a “one-shot program.” According to a NASA biography of Webb, he told the president, “‘If you want me to be the administrator, it’s going to be a balanced program that does the job for the country.'”
By balance, Webb meant focusing on space flight and science; he believed the combined emphasis would strengthen American universities and the aerospace industry. Webb certainly did his part in the race to space, overseeing the six manned Mercury and 10 manned Gemini flights that opened the door to the Apollo program, which he managed up until its first manned flight. But he also gave scientists control in selecting space missions, and he furthered the intellectual end of discovery by creating the NASA University Program, which formed new laboratories at universities and established grants for space research.
Webb Advocated Exploration
Webb pushed NASA in directions that are evident today. For one, he advanced the development of robotic spacecraft. When he retired, NASA had launched more than 75 space science missions to study the sun, stars and galaxies, and the space above Earth’s atmosphere. Those explorations set the stage for later probe journeys to Mars and Venus and a series of stunning images that gave us an idea of what those planets offer.
Webb also espoused the development of a large space telescope, saying it should become a top NASA priority. Sure enough, that program has created several major telescopes, including the famed Hubble Space Telescope. In circling the Earth’s low orbit for more than 4 billion miles since launching in 1990, Hubble has illuminated the scale of the universe by closely studying locations more than 13.4 billion light-years from our planet, giving true meaning to the “Star Wars” opening sequence phrase, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
A Telescope for the Ages
Hubble is considered the grandfather of NASA telescopes. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope — sometimes called JWST, or simply Webb — is expected to launch in 2021 and could work alongside Hubble into the next decade. NASA hopes the telescope will find the universe’s first galaxies and try to connect the Big Bang to our galaxy. It certainly has the technology to observe things never studied before. Its instruments work mostly in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, relying on sensitivity cameras and a mirror 21.3 feet in diameter.
At least one team of scientists hope the James Webb Space Telescope can detect if there’s life elsewhere in the universe. According to the BBC, University of Washington astronomers believe it could study “‘atmospheric chemical disequilibrium'” from several Earth-sized planets that orbit the Jupiter-sized star TRAPPIST-1, which is about 39.6 light-years away from our sun. Essentially, that means the telescope is capable of studying gases that might reveal if there are indeed other forms of life out there.
That’s the kind of science the telescope’s namesake would be proud of.
Northrop Grumman is a proud partner with NASA to bring the dream the James Webb Space Telescope into reality. Explore career opportunities in this exciting area of engineering and aerospace.