Meet the Columbia Lecturer Who Led NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

After leaving NASA, did you fully retire from Webb? Or will you be involved in it for the rest of your days?

Well, hopefully the rest of my days are long. Webb has enough fuel for 20+ years, hopefully closer to 30. I’ll definitely be busy almost every day. You know, when I turn on the news in the morning, many days, there’s something about a new discovery, a new picture. Of course I follow the launch of Artemis [a planned NASA moon mission]. So I connect with people through this process. But yes, I will always be a part of it. It’s like sending your baby to college. You do not cut the thread at this point. I’m not clipping this thread.

They worked on this project from 2018 to 2022. Was COVID the biggest challenge you faced or was it something else?

COVID was the biggest surprise, but I put COVID in a completely different category.

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There were some important cultural things that needed to be adjusted. And it’s hard to change culture in a short period of time. I had to come up with some ways to change the culture just to make sure everyone was aligned. Everyone did the right things, but not always in complete harmony. Certainly this team is incredibly smart; I can’t tell them much about how to do their job. But I can encourage them to focus on certain areas over others in a certain way, to encourage better forward planning to open up and not be so isolated. To let them know it’s okay to bring in some other experts to help. stuff like this.

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And we certainly had some technical challenges. Within two months of my boarding, we were testing the spacecraft sun visor and doing acoustic testing, and many screws fell off. It’s not a good day when that happens. That was a huge challenge. It required a very conscious replanning, which cost us about eight and a half months of work.

I have this experience sometimes when I’m looking at the Webb photos, where I find them really exciting, and then I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realize how tiny we are in the middle of the universe. Do you still have that feeling?

Yes, and I have for a long time. I sometimes compare it to when I took my first cruise somewhere around 2007 or 2008. If you’re on a cruise ship, that thing is huge; I mean it’s a city. But in the ocean it is like a pebble. It’s really. And when I come back to land, the thing is a city again. And when I think of our solar system, it’s pretty small too. Webb looks at thousands of galaxies, but we know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies out there. Imagine that: hundreds of billions of galaxies. If you look at the size of our own solar system and then look at the earth within that solar system, you know that we are just a pebble in the universe.

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