For some it might be a work of fiction or a memoir; for others, it’s their first business or app. But, for Scott Willoughby, it’s a 13,000-pound heaviest telescope that must unfurl in space and operate at cryogenic temperatures.

Willoughby remarked of his 12-year-old baby, the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched on Christmas Day from Kourou, on South America’s northern coast, as his middle child. It is the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, that has been observing faraway galaxies and stars for more than 30 years but cannot see the earliest galaxies produced in the cosmos, as Webb will.

Willoughby, the telescope’s program manager and military firm Northrop Grumman Corp., is one of thousands of aerospace employees at NASA, Northrop, and other companies who have committed a significant portion of their lives — some accidentally — to this solitary objective.

Their efforts have spanned almost two decades, including a decade of delays, several technological obstacles, and a storm that nearly destroyed a testing cycle. It culminated in Saturday’s launch, which Willoughby compared to his two children leaving 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.”

Sandra Irish, NASA’s principal structural engineer on Webb, said, “I was only going to be on it for four to five years,” She has now been a part of the program for sixteen years.

sandra irish
nasa.gov

Irish recalls sobbing as she saw the ship carrying the big telescope, which had been carried from Seal Beach to the launch location in French Guiana, come into the harbor in the month of October.

The Webb telescope is meant to search for dim infrared light — which is the first light to sweep across the dark cosmos 13.8 billion years ago — to help scientists learn more about the universe’s beginnings. It boasts a mirror roughly three times the size of Hubble’s and a five-layer solar screen unlike anything ever created before.

“There wasn’t anything else out there that I could look at and improve on”, said Jim Flynn, Northrop Grumman’s head of vehicle engineering, who has worked on the program for seventeen years. The sun screen, which is composed of a film material known as Kapton and is coated with a specific coating, aids in keeping the telescope cool.

Majority of the work done on the telescope was revolutionary, including the creation of eighteen lightweight, hexagonal mirrors and to ensure that Webb can operate properly at cryogenic temperatures. Costs grew to $10 billion over time (previous projections varied from USD 2 billion to USD 8 billion), while development difficulties pushed back the launch date.