On Saturday, the largest telescope ever built will begin a million mile journey on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. While it’s a testament to NASA’s unmatched ingenuity, it holds unthinkable promise for humanity.
That’s because the James Webb Space Telescope is nothing short of a scientific feat. It has the ability to peer into dust clouds and see light from far-away corners of the universe for the very first time – potentially to the first galaxies that formed about 13.5 billion years ago in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Put simply, it has the power to show us how our universe came to be.
When we think of telescopes, many think of one that has become a household name: Hubble. Observing the universe in infrared at longer wavelengths of light than the Hubble Space Telescope and with 100 times more sensitivity, Webb will explore objects in our solar system as well as distant worlds in solar systems beyond – atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars, potentially those similar to our own.
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On Earth, Webb represents NASA's largest international space science program. It embodies NASA’s values, teamwork and excellence. This international collaboration with the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency is the result of tireless work from thousands of scientists and hundreds of engineers from partners around the globe.
This telescope is a shining example of what NASA can accomplish when we push the boundaries of space exploration. We are on the precipice of scientific breakthroughs we can’t yet imagine.
But it also represents so much more.
Edge of our seats
Webb is one of the great engineering feats of not just NASA but for humanity. This monumental endeavor has been decades in the making. As with all transformative projects, there have been setbacks and speed bumps along the way. At NASA, we know boldness and ambition necessitate intense progress and innovation.
Every great achievement has some level of calculated risk – and Webb is no exception. For most missions, launch poses the highest risk. But for this telescope, the 21-foot mirror and 70-foot sunshield are too big for any rocket, so engineers designed a novel segmented and foldable observatory that must unfurl once outside of our atmosphere.
Not to mention there are more than 300 "single-point failures." In other words, each of these choreographed steps needs to be completed to ensure mission success over the course of its three-week journey.
Webb will keep humanity on the edge of our seats. But I believe in the team that built this telescope – and I know they believe in their work, too.
This type of novel innovation is exactly why our country, why NASA and why humanity continue to push the envelope of what is possible. To introduce groundbreaking new technologies to the world, we must take risks and take the first steps. And NASA is no stranger to first steps.
Overcoming challenges to reach forward
The Webb team has overcome tough challenges and made new technologies, and they have an insatiable drive to succeed. These engineers, scientists and leaders who have poured their life’s passion into this project will now see their hard work come to fruition.
To accomplish such an ambitious science mission on a scale never attempted before has been made possible by incredible engineering and creativity. Ten entirely new technologies were successfully developed as a result of this telescope, with applications here on Earth for the benefit of humanity.
The impacts can be felt across the globe benefiting life on Earth. Innovations created just for Webb were applied to ophthalmology and have led to better diagnoses of eye diseases and potentials for improved surgery – doctors, who once had to wait hours to get detailed information about the shape of a patient’s eye, now are able to get that information in a matter of seconds.
This mission is like no other and in many ways, it transcends science.
It’s progress like this that drives us forward and gives us inspiration. Our rockets run on fuel, but inspiration is fuel that drives NASA to achieve greatness and helps us understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.
NASA and its people value the power of purpose, inspiration and hope – it continues to serve as the lifeblood of our missions. As we enter a new era of spaceflight and discovery, we need to be bold. We need to take risks. The reward is worth the risk.
This mission represents the ambition that NASA maintains to propel us forward – for science, for inspiration and for risk-taking. We must never stop exploring the heavens nor stop daring to take another step forward for humanity.
The launch is scheduled for Saturday, but this journey is far from over – I hope you’ll tune in when this tennis court-size telescope launches and unfurls to show humanity its true majesty.
Bill Nelson is NASA administrator and a former U.S. senator from Florida.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASA James Webb Space Telescope launch is an American moment