Space may indeed be humanity’s final frontier. And our ability to explore the farthest boundaries of that frontier is about to take a magnificent interstellar leap, with the December 18 launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — an event NASA has declared “will fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe.”
As the largest, most powerful and complex telescope ever built and launched into space, JWST is 100 times more powerful than Hubble, and will peer back in time over 13.5 billion years to see the first galaxies born after the Big Bang.
That NASA has entrusted a French company, Arianespace — the world’s first commercial launch service provider — with the delivery of Webb has profound implications for the future of U.S.-France cooperation and partnerships in space, as well as other sectors. The diplomatic, scientific, and cultural effect of such close alliances were among the topics covered in a wide-ranging September 10 symposium, “The James Webb Space Telescope: Finding First Light & The Power of Science Through Partnerships.” The Embassy of France hosted the event, while the French-American Cultural Foundation (F-ACF) convened it.
Representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA mission partners Arianespace, Ball Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman were among those taking part, while Washington Post Space and Defense Reporter Christian Davenport moderated. France’s Centre national d’études spatiale (CNES) was also involved in the symposium’s preparation.
Ambassador Philippe Étienne shared a written message with the symposium participants, who gathered both in person — while observing COVID protocols — at the French Embassy’s La Maison Française, and virtually, through a video livestream.
Ambassador Étienne noted that the James Webb Space Telescope “perfectly embodies the fruitful, long-standing partnership between the United States, France, and Europe in space.” He added that, “As Ambassador of France to the United States, I am very proud and honored to welcome the various stakeholders whose energy and expertise make this historical project possible. They truly embody the values of transatlantic cooperation for the benefit of science and humanity.”
An energetic advocate for international cooperation in the sector, Ambassador Étienne has observed that “space is unforgiving; it takes all talents to make progress.”
The Embassy of France’s Deputy Chief of Mission, Aurélie Bonal, opened the symposium with welcoming remarks, commenting that the launch was eagerly anticipated by both scientists and the public. Echoing Ambassador Étienne’s message, Ms. Bonal asserted that “the telescope is an eloquent example of the benefits of global partnerships in space and science.” Noting the environmental harshness of space, she said “the human adventure in space is not an easy one,” and it has “long relied upon close relationships among spacefaring nations.” These close relationships “demonstrate the high value of international cooperation in advancing science, as well as the tremendous power of science in advancing friendship among nations.”
For the first part of the morning’s discussion, moderator Christian Davenport took the stage with Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël and Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Directorate Associate Administrator.
Zurbuchen began the initial session by remarking that, “When we look at…the sky, we look at the earth, we recognize we’re one humanity, working together, all at once.” There are, of course, practical considerations — such as funding — as well as philosophical ones. “We realize that when we work together with France, for example, as well as others, we can do more with the same money to benefit all of us,” said Zurbuchen. “And our collaboration with France is a really great example of that.” In addition to the JWST, NASA is working with France for scientific projects focusing upon the earth’s oceans and Mars.
Isräel — noting that Arianespace has had a U.S. presence for almost 40 years, since 1982 — informed the audience that the company has delivered more 300 payloads for U.S. commercial operators or manufacturers. In 2002, Arianespace became involved with the JSWT project, and its Ariane 5 rocket — which will carry JWST to orbit — is widely regarded as one of the most reliable launch platforms available. Ariane 6 will be introduced in 2022, and will return samples from Mars to earth.
Teamwork, Zurbuchen emphasized, has been critical to the success of the multi-nation planning process behind Webb. For NASA, this means “layers of trust, and layers of success — success breeds success — and so for us, we’re really an international team.” The Artemis Accords — which will guide both new human and robotic exploration of the moon — have benefitted from the participation of CNES.
Students from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (one of America’s leading secondary schools) and the George Washington University (winners of a collegiate rocketry contest) were in the audience, and Zurbuchen directly addressed them. “One of the coolest things of being in our industry is that it is international. You should expect, if you join our industry, that you will work, with a high degree of certainty, with international collaborators; that you will travel; that you will see other worlds; and that in many cases you will form friendships that are transcending boundaries that you don’t even know exist yet.”
Israël seconded Zurbuchen, adding that the students should remember that “Space is all about innovation and technology. Space is all about international collaboration. And also cooperation between the public and private sector.”
Webb will blast off from the Guiana Space Centre — the world’s most modern launch base — also known as “Europe’s Spaceport.” Shared by Arianespace, the ESA, CNES, and Azercosmos, the spaceport is situated on the equator, which requires less energy to maneuver a spacecraft into orbit. It is also near the ocean, allowing for safe disposal of debris in case of launch mishap. Zurbuchen shared his impressions of a recent visit, enthusing about the people, environment, and food: “It was almost like a vacation and work together.”
After arrival by boat in French Guiana during mid-October, Webb will undergo eight weeks of preparation. The launch itself will last 27 minutes. The working life of the telescope — which will operate a million miles from earth — is a decade.
“When we’re done with Webb, we will look at the night sky in a very different fashion, just like with Hubble,” Zurbuchen shared. “For me the most amazing thing I’m looking forward to is really imaging that first-generation galaxy…200, 300, million years after the Big Bang.”
In conclusion, Israël declared that, “After this launch, Ariane 5 will have definitely entered in the legend and in history — because this will be one of the most important missions ever done in space.”
Part two of the symposium focused on the technology of Webb, with a guided tour from Gregory Robinson, NASA’s JWST Program Director; Antonella Nota, an Associate Director of the ESA; Makenzie Lystrup, Ball Aerospace’s Civil Space Strategic Business Unit Vice President and General Manager; and Scott Willoughby, Vice President and Webb Telescope Program Manager for Northrop Grumman.
Dr. Nota gave a preview of what might be expected from Webb. “The discoveries will be just amazing,” she said. “We will be surprised to see how the early universe — the first galaxies — how they formed, how they assembled, what made the galaxies that we see today. So this will be really a phenomenal discovery — but it will not be the only one.” Webb will also examine the formation of stars, Dr. Nota shared, as well as planets outside of our own solar system.
Robinson provided an overview of the $10 billion JWST program. “If you want to do bold things, you have to make the investment,” he declared. “Pretty soon, we’ll see all of the benefits.”
Asked by Davenport where Webb will rank in the pantheon of space exploration, Lystrup responded that, “I would argue that this is the most ambitious thing that we have done in space. If you look at the technological development that it took to be able to get the telescope where it is, this was the culmination of decades and decades of technology development.”
The mirror segments of JWST — developed by Ball Aerospace — feature many innovations, such as the use of strong and lightweight beryllium, and small actuator motors that adjust the mirrors in increments of nanometers. For perspective, the width of a human hair is 100,000 nanometers.
Willoughby briefly discussed the complex testing atmosphere Northrop Grumman utilized, which will contribute to Webb’s success once deployed. That repetitive and rigorous environment, he said, is “why no one company, no one organization, no one country could ever have done something this ambitious. Because we are bringing just everybody’s best to it.”
The sensitivity of Webb, compared to Hubble, is almost immeasurable. “Expect to be really surprised and amazed,” Dr. Nota promised. “Because I think we will have completely rewritten the astronomy books when Webb is done.”
“The cultural impact, I think, is going to be significant,” Lystrup said. Webb — like Hubble, and other exploration missions — has the potential to “fundamentally change the way that we think about ourselves and our place in the universe,” she stated. “They fundamentally change our understanding of science, and really move us into new types of scientific questions. And that science is really critical — but it’s also a cultural endeavor. What we do is human culture when we do these missions.”
Are we alone? Where did the universe come from? “Those are fundamental philosophical, natural philosophy, and science questions,” Lystrup observed, “and Webb is going to delve us further into those questions than we’ve ever done before.”
Twenty-nine U.S. states and 14 countries contributed to Webb. “It’s almost unprecedented; it’s almost like the International Space Station when you look at partnerships,” Robinson observed. But even with such a robust network, there is risk. “I’ve worked many, many launches in my life; twenty-two shuttle launches,” Robinson shared. “The butterflies never go away. You get to the pad; the count starts; and that journey to space on the rocket — every phase of that, the butterflies go down a little bit.” Nonetheless, “even though the risk is still there, I think it’s pretty low” said Robinson.
Six months will elapse between launch and when actual operations begin. After that, Webb will adapt and evolve as it keeps pace with science.
Asked by Davenport to summarize their pre-launch dispositions, Robinson mentioned that he is excited, while Lystrup is impatient. Nota said the ESA is “holding its collective breath” and Willoughby noted that JSWT would, within a week, be nested into a shipping container for its trip to the spaceport.
Following questions from the students in the audience, French-American Cultural Foundation Executive Director Debra Dunn concluded the symposium with a thank you to all of the participants, and the philosophy of why the F-ACF organized the event in the first place. “[At the F-ACF] we seek to broaden the understanding of culture beyond the traditional arts and music” she said, “and instead, include everything that touches humanity and is the soul of a nation.”