It may have breathed new life into NASA.
It’s dawn on December 25, 2021.
Your finger is hovering, shakily, over the ultimate button. You’re about to launch a $10-billion space telescope called the James Webb Space Telescope on its journey to the second Lagrange point (L2).
“Launch day. It’s 7:00 AM, and I’m at the Mission Operations Center, ‘the MOC’ — mission control to regular folks, for the launch” of Webb, said Webb Operations Specialist Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a blog post from the agency.
Just 20 minutes from Webb’s launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket, the mood in mission control created that electric double-whammy of nervous excitement, living at the juncture of two possible futures: Webb launches, or Webb fails to launch.
And the world watched as the future of astronomy, NASA flagship missions, and our scientific grasp of the universe hung in the balance.
“The mood here is nervous, excited, and ready,” said Rigby in the blog post. “I hear laughter in the hallways and see grim eyes over KN95 masks. We know that the future of NASA science is at stake.” In a lot of ways, it really was, and remains so. Since Webb was first proposed in 1996 (by another name, the Next Generation Space Telescope), it’s gone through more changes than any other flagship mission of NASA’s — except for maybe Artemis.
In 2002, it was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope, and a formal scientific pitch was shared on a preprint archive in 2006, laying out the goals and ultimate ambitions for the spacecraft. But it would be a bumpy road, with more than two decades and countless delays, and all the while, Congress was cutting costs at NASA — putting the very viability of its science missions at stake.
For better or worse, commercial space flight came into maturity in the interim, with the trio of space barons — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson — rising to new heights (both literally and figuratively). Musk’s SpaceX ultimately shouldered the weight of NASA’s crewed and uncrewed missions to the International Space Station. This was crucial in the wake of the retired Space Shuttle series, and doubly so after tensions grew to intolerable levels between the U.S. and Russia — the latter of whom ferried U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS throughout most of the twenty-teens.
With many citizens and scientists beginning to feel like Artemis — NASA’s comprehensive launch system for returning humans to the moon — might be a case of déjà vu, or a repeat of Webb’s repeated delays, the famous American space agency needed a win. If Webb saw continued delays, or experienced a cataclysmic failure upon launch, the future of NASA might look grim.
All of this was foremost on the minds of scientists like Rigby, and her colleagues, in mission control, as the clock counted down to launch Webb to space.
Of course, Rigby and her colleagues did not literally have their finger on a big red “LAUNCH” button — after internal checks on the James Webb Telescope were finished, only a few steps were needed before the spacecraft and the rocket were placed on automated countdown.
Launch and spacecraft engineers stationed at Jupiter Control Center within Europe’s Spaceport, French Guiana, in addition to the Baltimore-based “MAC”, confirmed that Webb had engaged its internal battery, and was ready to launch. Seven minutes to launch, computers took control of all of the Ariane 5 rocket’s automated countdown tasks.
In the final minutes to launch, the computers were ready to cut all automatic countdown activities if any serious issues were detected, ground controllers called for a stop, or the Webb team asked for a mission hold, should a critical concern arise.
But then the ticker hit zero, and Webb was lifted into the air. In mission control, Rigby heard “shrieking from the VIPs downstairs,” but in the immediate vicinity of glowing computer screens, it was quiet. The nerve center of Webb’s mission was waiting to assume control of the spacecraft once it had separated from the rocket — but that was still 30 minutes away.
Amid a life-changing experience, at the tail end of decades of work on the line, that could feel like an eternity.
“The second stage shuts down and the launch vehicle separates,” said Rigby, narrating her experience on December 25, 2021. “The call comes out that the attitude control system is working. The solar array should be deploying automatically…. There’s a tense wait… and then the call ‘Sun is on the array, current is on the array!’ Suddenly it’s DEAFENINGLY loud on the voice loops, with clapping and shouts of happiness echoing through the MOC.”
“I look up to see the video feed from the launch vehicle and THERE IT IS,” continued Rigby in what one can only assume is the vocal form of all-caps (enthusiasm, of course). “[O]ur beautiful observatory with its solar panel all the way out, shining in the sun.”
And this was just the beginning of the good news. The first ground station tuned in — in Malindi, Kenya — “and the MOC sends our first command” to Webb, along with “shouts and cheering,” added Rigby. “The reaction wheels are powered up and take over. We hear ‘Wheel Sun!’ and I write it in all caps in my log. The call comes over the voice loop: ‘JWST is flying on its own.'”
It was one heck of a morning, full of anxieties that traced a path from the most bureaucratic and nationalistic to the deepest, most profoundly personal depths of a human being. But it was also just the beginning of the James Webb Space Telescope’s incredible journey to its final orbital position around L2, roughly 1 million miles from Earth. And, a few short months away from its first science missions, everything Rigby and her colleagues hoped Webb would do — for science and astronomy, for NASA, and the entire human race — is edging closer with every passing minute.
It may have breathed new life into NASA.