A pair of students scurry to class. A jogger plods along. The ordinary hubbub of a college campus characterizes the scene outside of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), located in the Steven Muller Building on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus in north Baltimore.
Yet inside the building, none of the activity falls within the realm of the ordinary. There, on the second floor of the nondescript, 1980s-style building, astrophysicists and engineers work to finalize the alignment of mirrors on the powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched on December 25, 2021, and now roughly one million miles from Earth, orbiting what astronomers call L2, short for the second Lagrange Point.
L2 is the perfect place for the $10-billion space telescope to orbit. After all, it lies opposite the sun, which means the telescope can maintain the extremely low temperatures it needs to capture images of stars and galaxies light-years away. Lined up precisely with the sun and Earth, L2 also serves as what astronomers call a “gravity pocket,” an area with balanced gravitational pull that keeps the telescope in lockstep with the Earth’s orbit and eliminates the risk that it will, say, float off in deep space.
Yet the location of L2 means scientists can’t visit the telescope if something goes wrong. This differs from another powerful telescope, the famous Hubble Space Telescope, also operated out of STScI, and currently orbiting Earth at an altitude of approximately 340 miles. So far, astronauts have serviced Hubble onboard the spacecraft five times since it launched in 1990. But in deep space—which NASA defines as past the moon’s orbit—the JWST, or Webb, as it’s often called, is off-limits, meaning all maintenance and troubleshooting takes place not aboard the spacecraft but here in Baltimore, on the backside of Hopkins’ campus, along winding, tree-lined San Martin Drive.
There, Mission Operations Manager (MOM) Carl Starr—yes, his last name is Starr—huddles with his team in the Flight Control Room (FCR) of the Mission Operations Center (MOC) of the JWST, the most powerful, expensive space telescope ever built, one that promises to unlock answers to the origins of our universe, such as how galaxies first formed after the Big Bang. Like many federally and internationally funded programs—this one is a product of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)—working on the JWST means, on top of other cognitively demanding tasks, memorizing a list of acronyms spanning 48 pages.
“Everyone calls me MOM,” says Starr, pictured above, who has worked on JWST since 2004, and whose position as MOM started 30 minutes after launch, when the telescope separated from the shuttle and began its journey to the deep, dark orbit of L2. Starr, who has curly brown-red hair, mutton chops, and a goatee, wears a blue-and-black-checkered blazer with a pin on his lapel representing the telescope’s signature 18 hexagonal mirrors, which look like a honeycomb.
The dad of a 10-year-old, Starr says his daughter finds it funny to hear his team of 600-plus people refer to him as MOM. But some of his responsibilities, it turns out, come across as mom-like. For one, he oversees the team that monitors the health of the JWST—taking its temperature to make sure instruments and systems don’t overheat, sending commands to keep the telescope on task. He also oversees communication among the MOC’s multidisciplinary teams, such as the engineers sitting in an adjoining room with expertise in areas like propulsion and thermal engineering, along with the astrophysicists and physicists working fastidiously around the corner on the telescope’s wavefront sensing technology, which uses algorithms to align the 18 mirrors and maintain optical systems.
Starr’s desk sits in the middle of the back row of the FCR, which is ground control for the telescope. Multiple signs hang on the glass wall and entryway, cautioning anyone who enters that this is a “Controlled Area by Order of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” in which “Unauthorized Persons Who Enter May be Subject to Prosecution Under Title 18 U.S. Code 799.”
Roughly the size of a school classroom, the FCR consists of nine desks on which stands a sea of gleaming monitors. The desks face the back of the room, oriented intentionally in the direction of two large, hanging screens that display the telescope’s movement and location. Two digital clocks flank the screens, one displaying Eastern Standard Time (EST) and the other Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), based on the Earth’s rotation.
Beyond the glowing, digitalized control room is something unlike anything else in the room: a view not into a pixelated screen but into nature. Made possible by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, the view shows a panoply of tall oak, maple, and birch trees, swaying gently in the wind outside, a stream meandering through the middle.
The panorama of Earth comes in handy, at times, to a team with their eyes on the far-off universe. Starr included it intentionally when he worked with an engineer and architect to design the room. “Nature soothes and calms,” he says. At times, the high stakes work environment calls for it.
“My position as MOM is like the conductor of the orchestra,” says Starr. “I keep things moving, and then, when things don’t go as expected, I become more like a general on a battlefield.”
“MY POSITION AS MOM IS LIKE THE CONDUCTOR OF THE ORCHESTRA.”
With three decades of work in operations engineering, on top of military experience—Starr served in Operation Desert Shield in Iraq—he can remain calm, and keep others calm, under pressure. “When an anomaly happens, I call a triage meeting, I hear from all the leads and subject-matter experts, and I help get a new plan together,” he says. “But sometimes that $10-billion price tag falls right on our shoulders.”
Starr can tell by body language when his team is tense or frustrated.
“Sometimes people freeze, and I take off my headset and then walk up to talk to them personally and say, in a calm voice, ‘This is what just happened. It’s really critical that in the next three minutes we do X, Y, and Z,’” he says. “And then it’s ‘Copy that, Wilco,’ and we go on about our business.”
Kayla Yates sits on the front row of the FCR, next to Irma Aracely Quispe-Neira. Yates serves as the command controller, while Aracely Quispe-Neira works as the operations controller. Together, they monitor the telemetry, or the automatic measurements and data sent from the telescope via a radio signal to Earth.
Just a few years out of an undergraduate program in astronautical engineering, Yates is one of the youngest members of the team at 26, and the only one, on most days, sending direct commands to the telescope. Written in a standard computer programming language and tailored to the needs of the spacecraft, the commands tell the telescope to do things like turn off a certain system so it can cool down, maneuver to a new position, or perform whatever task the engineering, wavefront-sensing, and instrument teams deem necessary.
The command requests first go to Starr, who works with Yates and Aracely Quispe-Neira, 39, to schedule the procedure in a timely manner, among other priorities. Yates then types in the commands with her long, glossy, taupe-painted fingernails, checking the script multiple times—and having Aracely Quispe-Neira double-check it—before hitting send.
When asked how it feels to be one of only a handful of scientists communicating with the telescope, Yates is surprisingly blasé. “I think it’s the routine of it all,” says the engineer, who communicates with the telescope every day, with a shrug. “It’s the repetition of mostly looking at numbers.”
Yates almost went to art school and stands out, in combat boots and a boho-style dress, from her conservatively clad colleagues (with the exception of Starr, perhaps, and his unconventional facial hair). But she decided, at the last minute, to pursue her passion for math and science by attending Capitol Technology University in Laurel to study astronautical engineering and computer science. “It’s a very niche program,” Yates says. “It’s similar to an aerospace degree, except mine was totally focused on flight outside of an atmosphere.”
Like everyone who works at the MOC, Yates underwent extensive training for her current role, training that Starr says involved late-night studying and exams and equates to “going to school all over again.” But if anything, Yates feels overprepared. “In so many ways, the flight is going almost flawlessly, compared with what we practiced and prepared for in training on the simulator,” she says.
Right now, the preparation appears to have paid off, given that the telescope is sailing through the “commissioning phase,” a term used to describe the six months after launch, during which the various teams make sure that all systems and components work according to plan. With the telescope’s tennis-court-sized sun shield deployed and keeping it cool, plus the 18 mirrors unfolded, and, as of press time, aligned, the JWST is nearly ready to start capturing images and conducting the research that NASA and its partners created the observatory to do.
“WEBB WILL PROBABLY ALTER HOW WE CONCEIVE OF OUR PLACE ON EARTH . . .”
So far, images taken and transmitted back to Earth have exceeded even the team’s wildest imaginations. “Look at this,” Starr says, with a sparkle in his eyes as he pulls one up on his smartphone. There, on the small screen, brilliant bursts of light populate nearly every inch, like an explosion of stars and galaxies. “They will only get clearer,” he says, “and are going to blow us away.”
Like the stunning images taken over the past few decades by the Hubble Telescope, the JWST will capture and share with the public exquisite looks at stars, planets, and galaxies never seen before. But while the Hubble detects light primarily within the visible and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum, the JWST will detect light largely ininfrared—and see objects 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble, according to NASA. This, combined with Webb’s much larger mirror and state-of-the-art detectors, will enable the JWST to peer “back in time” to see the universe billions of years in the past—and hopefully solve the mystery of how the first galaxies formed.
Webb’s resolution, NASA says, will enable it to capture intricate details of, for example, an object the size of a regulation soccer ball 340 miles away, or the size of a penny about 24 miles away. That level of detail, at such a distance, is unprecedented. It will “enable the telescope, and scientists worldwide, to use infrared to truly unveil the universe,” says Quyen Hart, a senior education and outreach scientist at STScI.
“Hubble enabled us to discover planets outside of our solar system in the 1990s, so now our questions are: What, exactly, do we know about these planets? Are they hot? Do they have atmospheres? Are they like Earth?” she continues. “Webb will open the door to these answers and others—and probably alter how we conceive of our place on Earth and in the universe.”
NASA and its partners plan to release the first images this July, with events and celebrations happening worldwide at informal learning institutions like science centers, libraries, museums, and planetariums. A map of more than 600 events in Baltimore and across the United States is available online, along with updates on the precise release date of the actual photos, once NASA turns them over to the public.
Space enthusiasts can also visit NASA’s Universe of Learning for activities and resources to dive into the science of Webb, other observatories, and outer space in general. And they can follow NASA’s hashtags on social media for all things JWST—#UnfoldTheUniverse and #NASAWebb.
Or they can walk the path that coils along San Martin Drive on Hopkins’ campus, and when they pass the Steven Muller Building, with the “Go, Webb, Go!” banner fluttering outside, salute the team of scientists hard at work uncovering the mysteries of the cosmos.