Evidently it takes us successfully placing a space telescope a million miles from Earth to write here for the first time since January 2, 2021. I’ve been short-form writing elsewhere, but let’s face it, Hope and Inspiration quit abruptly when faced with an insurrection at the nation’s Capitol, Year 2 (and 3) of COVID, the passing of friends and family members, energy grid failures, and the protracted erosion of American democracy and human rights. How do you blaze a path to the future when you are being dragged backwards? Only a hypocrite can mentor students towards a future of … what exactly? What am I making for them? What am I helping them make? With what? And for how long?
For one moment: Something goes right and we prioritize science again. Even if for a mercilessly few news cycles, words like “nebula,” “gravitational lensing,” and “galaxy clusters” are placed in circulation, and at least one young person now wants to be an astrophysicist or rocket engineer when they grow up. We are reminded of our size and age in the universe. Hope and Inspiration rise up and promise to stick around if we work on creating and sustaining more such moments. Ones of wonder, awe and learning, not anger, fear and ignorance.
Read the following sentence, think about it, and then come back. We are large and old enough to engineer and launch a machine that overcame 344 single points of failure to give us awe-inspiring and humbling portraits of exactly how small and young we are. This isn’t meant to inflate or belittle; instead I suggest another metric of being: to think and live in the zone between big and small, old and young, present and future, near and far. It’s not easy to get into that groove and uncomfortable to be in it for more than a few seconds. I keep trying. It helps if you study Stephan’s Quintet, as an example.
“Together, the five galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet are also known as the Hickson Compact Group 92 (HCG 92). Although called a “quintet,” only four of the galaxies are truly close together and caught up in a cosmic dance. The fifth and leftmost galaxy, called NGC 7320, is well in the foreground compared with the other four. NGC 7320 resides 40 million light-years from Earth, while the other four galaxies (NGC 7317, NGC 7318A, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7319) are about 290 million light-years away.” – NASA.gov
The distance light travels in one Earth year is known as a light year. In one picture, we see a snapshot from 290 million years ago (before the time of dinosaurs) and from 40 million years ago (after dinosaurs went extinct). You are simultaneously witnessing two patches of the universe that bookend dinosaurs! It’s an unconformity of time in space! And in the background are galaxies billions of light years away – from before our Earth and solar system even formed! How lucky we are to be able to hold and bend these concepts in our brains, to visualize and perceive differently, to know there is so much more. Another measure of being.
The mind-blowing data coming in from the James Webb space telescope are a testament to humanity’s abilities and our relative size in this universe. They are also the result of more than a quarter century of innovation, risk, failure, and growth. Here are some thoughts on each of these aspects, which I hope resonate with every scientist and engineer Building Something Good.
1. Innovation – Go boldly in the direction of your dreams, but lead with honesty in planning. “It started with a very optimistic and unrealistic cost estimate with a huge promise. It’s like relationships that we have in our lives. If you start with a lie, it’s usually not going to last.” – Thomas H. Zurbuchen, NASA.
2. Risk – Quantified probabilities of success and failure, but probabilities nonetheless. “Exploration involves risk. If you’re not willing to take the risk, you don’t belong in this business.” – Mike Menzel, lead Missions systems engineer, NASA JWST
3. Failure – Failure is an option, and there is crying in science. There’s also pulling yourself together and moving on with integrity in science. “People make mistakes. What you don’t want to do is infusing in people, especially your engineers and technicians, an environment that says ‘Oh, don’t make a mistake and if you do it’s more profitable to hide it than to let it out.’ If they’re going to cancel us, they’re going to cancel us, but we’re going to do the honest thing.”
4. Growth – Being accountable for, learning from, communicating, and reaching out of past mistakes to succeed. “I realized how much worry I had been holding onto, after working on this thing for the past 11 years – and a lot of my colleagues have worked on it longer … but that it’s fully capable of doing all the amazing science for which it was built. It’s a wonderful feeling.” – Jane Rigby, operations project scientist, NASA JWST
What does this all have to do with the here, now, and putting food in people’s mouths? Why are we going about exploring space when there are a multitude of problems to fix here in America? Well, why can’t we do both? It is no longer an either-or proposition when liberated from the dual myths that there is only so much of the pie to go around and that money generation is a zero-sum game. Let’s not forget, however, that publicly-funded space science has plentiful rewards that have bettered modern life and continue to contribute to our standard of living. Only as long as we keep Hope and Inspiration alive.
Exploration and democracy go hand in hand. The folks mentioned here – the engineers and scientists who built and launched the JWST, will analyze its data, and may invent indescribable new technologies from their findings – didn’t spring up out of nowhere. This is why we need well-funded public schools with better-paid teachers, easier paths to higher education, intelligent political representatives to populate our scientific oversight and funding committees, and greater public access to science media and literacy.
Please let these not be the last new NASA images of the universe I see in my lifetime.
Sources and further reading:
- PBS Nova “Ultimate Space Telescope” [watch online | 53 minutes]
- Hubble vs. James Webb interactive slider [link]
- NASA’s Webb Sheds Light on Galaxy Evolution, Black Holes [link]
- Meet the woman who makes the James Webb Space Telescope work | Scientific American [link]
- The book ban movement has a chilling new tactic: harassing teachers on social media | MIT Technology Review [link]