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Webb Space Telescope: Go for Launch with ESA Expert

Season 1Dec 14, 2021

After years of preparation and anticipation, it’s time to send the world’s most powerful telescope to space. Ariane 5 rocket expert Rudi Albat (ESA) takes you through launch day and describes why the launcher that will carry Webb to its final destination is one of a kind.

NASA's Curious Universe

Webb Space Telescope Mini-Series

JWST Mini, Episode Four: Go For Launch with ESA’s Ariane 5 Expert

Estimated Run Time:

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About the Episode:

After years of preparation and anticipation, it’s time to send the world’s most powerful telescope to space. Ariane 5 rocket expert Rudi Albat takes you through launch day and describes why the launcher that will carry Webb to its final destination is one of a kind.

NASA's Curious Universe



[Song: Happy Accident Underscore by Lewis Reed]

Rudi Albat: I’ve never participated to the Olympic Games, but I think that an athlete might feel the same way. You prepare for years and years and years, you check everything, you train, you train, you train and then comes the big day. In rocketry, it’s the same. I’ve participated for more than 100 launches. Each launch is so particular that it’s like falling in love each day again. So, very special.

Rudi Albat:I won’t miss this one, it will be the “top light” of my career.

[Song: Modular Odyssey Instrumental by Frenod]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m Padi Boyd, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide!

HOST PADI BOYD: After years of planning, preparation, and anticipation, the time has finally come to send the world’s most powerful telescope into space. Once it reaches its final destination, the James Webb Space Telescope will send back information about the cosmos for years to come and scientists anticipate that Webb’s research will fundamentally change our understanding of the universe.

HOST PADI BOYD: We’ve explored the science, engineering, and people of Webb. We’re at the end of our mini-series, and it’s time to talk about the launch of this historic mission.

Rudi Albat: My name is Rudi Albat, Rüdeger as first name, Rudi shortened. And I’m working for the European Space Agency, ESA. And I’m there, the Ariane 5 Program Manager. So my job as a program manager is to prepare the Ariane launcher for new missions and new destinations. And Webb is one of the highlights of these missions.

[Song: Thinking Time Underscore by Allaway Lardner]

Rudi Albat: First, it started very early. I’m born in the 60’s. So I’m a pure Apollo kid. I grew up with black and white television and Apollo on it. And I followed it! My eyes were riveted on the screen. Later, I got a stiff neck because the eyes were riveted to the skies.

HOST PADI BOYD: Rudi Albat of the European Space Agency, or ESA, will be a key player during launch day. As the Ariane 5 Program Manager, it’s his job to keep the team on track and make sure the rocket is ready to launch Webb to space.

Rudi Albat: During the day of the launch, we will be totally 100, 200% focused on the launch. We are very much aware of the uniqueness of this passenger we have onboard. All our concentration, all our focus will be on the launch, mine included.

HOST PADI BOYD: Many NASA launches occur right on the United States’ “space coast,” at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But this one is a little different.

HOST PADI BOYD: Webb will launch from Kourou, French Guiana which is situated on the northeastern coast of South America. Webb will head to space from a launchpad operated by the European Space Agency. This is an international collaboration, after all!

HOST PADI BOYD: But, beyond that, Kourou provides a prime location for Webb to shoot off into space, towards its final destination. It is beneficial for launch sites to be located near the equator – the spin of the Earth can help give an additional push.

Rudi Albat: We are not the only launch site which can produce such missions, you see wonderful missions going out from the cape each month. What we can offer is low population around, meaning that we have few safety constraints.

Rudi Albat: We have the Atlantic Ocean on the north, on the east so, we can, again, no security constraints.

Rudi Albat: And the third thing we have and the others don’t have and you don’t have at the cape, is the rotation speed of the equator. We are just 300 miles away. So this brings some extra performance, which is very helpful for missions as for Webb.

HOST PADI BOYD: In order to get to its launch site, Webb has to make a great journey covering thousands of miles.

[Song: Immediate Action Underscore by Allaway Lardner]

HOST PADI BOYD: After the different parts of Webb were assembled individually, some in different countries, Webb was transported to a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California. That’s where engineers put everything together into one spacecraft, and then performed a lot of tests to make sure everything was in working order.

HOST PADI BOYD: Now, Webb is a large spacecraft, so in order to travel to Kourou and then up into space, it has to be folded “origami-style” for shipment. Then, it’s got to be fit compactly inside the fairing of Ariane 5, which is about 16 feet or 5 meters wide. And it has to be shipped through the Panama Canal to get there. Here’s Rudi from earlier this year, before Webb had shipped.

Rudi Albat: Oh, this will be a real adventure! James Webb will go to French Guiana and we will mobilize a lot of vessels, a lot of ships, a lot of airplanes. It will be an armada coming from California, being shipped through the Panama Canal, coming to French Guiana taking there our only one state road to the preparation facilities. This will be big logistics for NASA and also for us from ESA.

HOST PADI BOYD: The lead-up to launch has been a truly exciting time, with Webb traveling across an ocean and many people hustling to make final preparations. All eyes will be on Webb as the telescope prepares to get to work in space.

HOST PADI BOYD: To get there, Webb will need the assistance of an incredibly capable rocket called the Ariane 5. The Ariane 5 is one of the world’s most reliable launch vehicles, capable of delivering Webb to its destination in space.

Rudi Albat:The rocket is right now, sleeping in our rocket preparation hall in French Guiana in Kourou. It’s waiting there for the arrival of James Webb. Once we have the green light to go into the launch campaign, we will wake up the rocket and then we go. So the rocket is sleeping very well, waiting for his prince, Prince Webb.

HOST PADI BOYD: The day that Webb launches to space will be an incredibly important day. Scientists, engineers, and space enthusiasts across the globe will be on the edge of their seats with anticipation, with all eyes on Webb.

HOST PADI BOYD: The lead-up to launch day is like a great relay race, where each group has completed their specific task and then sent the spacecraft along to the next phase of its journey. This step is the final leg of Webb’s journey on Earth.

HOST PADI BOYD: Rudi’s team at the European Space Agency is responsible for one of the most crucial tasks, ensuring Webb gets to space safely after launching from Ariane 5.

[Song: Fast and Light Instrumental by Dipre]

HOST PADI BOYD: And this rocket is so massive, Rudi can’t describe it in one word.

Rudi Albat: I would say, I would need two. The two big words would be “big” and “powerful.” I like to go to see the rocket just the day before the launch in the evening. And then I’m all alone there looking to the launcher. And again, I get a stiff neck, because I look upwards, and I see there a rocket as tall as a cathedral. It really looks powerful.

Rudi Albat:It is capable to carry about 50,000 pounds to space. So it’s a real, 20 story high, high beast. It is flanked by two big solid rocket boosters a little bit like the shuttle. It weighs about 750 metric tons.

Rudi Albat:So it’s really a big rocket.

Rudi Albat:And this Ariane 5 is our specialist to bring into space a multitude of missions. It flies for science, it flies for exploration, for chasing comets or asteroids, brings cargo to the International Space Station. It brings satellites for uses from navigation, metrology, telecommunications. So really, Ariane is going everywhere. So it’s a beautiful, very major and a reliable launcher.

PADI BOYD: Rudi has overseen ESA launches for years, and knows just what to expect for a launch. Let’s join him on a tour of a typical launch day.

Rudi Albat: I could take you with me a day off a launch.

[Song: Adventure Prelude Instrumental by Parsons]

Rudi Albat:So it starts quite early. And it will start first with the weatherman, which is the most important man of the day.

[Sounds of weather radio chatter]

Rudi Albat:This guy is the only one which can hold us on ground.

[Sounds of launching firing room]

Rudi Albat:And once our weatherman has given green light, we will all head to the launcher control center where we prepare the rocket. The launcher control center, you have to imagine it, like the cockpit of an airplane. You’re sitting in the cockpit and you’re preparing the airplane for flight.

Rudi Albat:This means that we start to prepare the launcher for the propellant loading. We perform the electrical wiring on, we put energy on and we fill the launcher and once the launcher is set for launch, ready, fully filled, I take my car and I run to the launch control center.

Rudi Albat:So there’s a second control center. This you have to imagine, like the tower of an airport. And in this tower, are all the people which are required to perform a launch, meaning the people which put radars on the launcher to track it, to follow the launch trajectory, people which take care of energy, which take care of all the infrastructure, and me as the launcher guy. And then we put the final sequence on and off it goes, fully automatic.

[Sound of engines firing]

[Song: Little Treasures Instrumental by Dorier]

Rudi Albat:This would be a typical day of a launch, which will then end at the end of a day, with a 30-minute exciting mission to bring the spacecraft to space.

HOST PADI BOYD: Just before launch day, the ESA team meets for a discussion and to go over protocols. By this point, they’ve run through a number of tests and exercises to prepare for the big day.

Rudi Albat: The day before the launch, we all have to gather, all the launch team a minute, where we are all together, asking around in the circle, “Did you forget something?“, and this is really an important moment where we all go inside and check and recheck, and it is the moment where we decide together “Yes, we are ready, we are all ready to go”.

HOST PADI BOYD: On the day of the launch, Rudi and his team will be looking out for anything that could impact a launch. They do not want to put the Webb telescope in harm’s way. There are a few things Rudi and his team will be looking out for.

HOST PADI BOYD: Even though Ariane 5 is a massive rocket, the team won’t want to launch it under some circumstances. For example, some weather effects, like strong winds, could cause the rocket to bend.

Rudi Albat:Rockets do not like to bend so there are limits. If we have too strong shear winds, the rocket would not like that at all. Meaning that this would be for example, one criterion. If the weatherman comes saying we have jet streams today, we have shear winds, we go back to the launch center, we won’t fly that day.

Rudi Albat:So shear wind is one example. If the weatherman comes back with sad eyes telling us that there are heavy, heavy rain showers with gusts waiting for us, the rocket is waterproof, but these heavy rain showers and the gusts might be a problem.

HOST PADI BOYD: Once the European Space Agency does state the all-clear for launch, those attending the launch will witness a true spectacle. The Ariane 5 will have a lot of power behind it.

Rudi Albat:The rocket will do something, which is incredible at the beginning, it will accelerate.

[Song: The Rat Race Underscore by Allaway Lardner]

Rudi Albat: Imagine the Eiffel Tower accelerating with the speed of a Formula One car or for you in the U.S., a NASCAR. And it’s accelerating with the speed not from zero to 100 miles power. It’s going up to 20,000 miles per hour with the same acceleration.

HOST PADI BOYD: After all of the years of hard work and preparation, the launch phase of Webb’s mission will come to an end in around 26 minutes.

HOST PADI BOYD: After launch, the telescope will journey out to its new home.

HOST PADI BOYD: Webb will not orbit the Earth, as the Hubble Space Telescope does. Instead, it will orbit the Sun 1 million miles away from the Earth. From this place, which scientists call the second Lagrange point, or L2, Webb will be protected from the light and heat of the Sun and Earth as it studies our cosmos.

Rudi Albat:The first point which is really special is the position, the destiny. And this is a point at equilibrium between the Sun and the Earth. Webb becomes a fixed star, which does not change its position between the Earth and the Sun. And that’s what’s so special on it, that’s what the astronomers like. They have a fixed platform in space to look to the universe.

HOST PADI BOYD: About 27 minutes after launch, once the Ariane 5 propels Webb into space, the telescope and the upper stage of the rocket will separate.

Rudi Albat:And the first thing we do is that we assure that we take a safe distance from the Webb telescope, we do not want to operate the rocket beneath the just-released telescope. So we say goodbye to the telescope, and we will form a drifting phase to come to a safe distance.

HOST PADI BOYD: It will take a month until Webb is in place at the Lagrange point orbit. All the while, the upper stage of Ariane 5 will detour away on this million-mile cosmic road trip, as its companion speeds off into the distance.

[Song: Bittersweet Goodbye Underscore by Ichard]

Rudi Albat:Once we are at the safe distance, we do a maneuver which we call “end of life maneuver,” meaning that we bring Ariane to the end of its life in a safe, safe orbit where it will never meet James Webb again. And we will, what we call, “passivate,” all the systems meaning that we bring the rocket to a stable graveyard.

Rudi Albat:And, and this is it.

Rudi Albat:What I understand from Webb is that it will simply give to mankind the sharpest eyes we ever had to study the universe. We are outside of the atmosphere, we have the biggest telescope, the biggest mirrors, which ever has been built. So it’s simply the most powerful telescope which has been ever launched to space.

Rudi Albat:And this I really regret that we cannot see it in space. It will be the most majestic spacecraft ever built. It will be a stunning beauty, majestic in space.

HOST PADI BOYD: Rudi looks forward to a successful launch, and to be able to achieve a historic moment with his colleagues and international partners.

Rudi Albat:I will see these people and they will fill me with gratitude that I can work for them. The real special thing comes once the show is over, once the mission is done, and you really have an explosion of joy between those which know that their baby is now well-born and on track to a good life. And us because we have spent two or three months of very, very intense work to make this day happen.

HOST PADI BOYD: Though there’s lots of excitement around launch day, and though Webb will have already traveled so far to get to the launchpad, this is really only the beginning of the space telescope’s journey.

[Song: Rebirth by Dubois]

Rudi Albat:So for us launcher guys, the work is done roughly one and a half hours after the launch, and then starts the real work of our colleagues from the spacecraft side. They will then have six months of work to commission their baby in space. Six months to get it operational, available for the astronomers.

HOST PADI BOYD: And though the launch is an exciting time, Webb’s journey through space is a much more terrifying process. There are so many things that need to go just right as Webb deploys the hundreds of tiny mechanisms needed to unfold its main parts.

HOST PADI BOYD: Once in orbit, Webb will unfold its delicate five-layered sunshield until it reaches the size of a tennis court. Webb will then deploy its iconic 6.5-meter primary mirror that will detect the faint light of far-away stars and galaxies.

HOST PADI BOYD: This is the true start of Webb’s mission, where the telescope can begin peering back to some of the most fascinating and perplexing objects in our universe.

HOST PADI BOYD: Webb will seek to solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around faraway stars, and probe the origins of our universe, providing us with key context about our place within it.

Rudi Albat: What makes us human beings, I think it’s curiosity and the capability to learn from the past. If I look to Webb, for me, it is an enormous invitation to our curiosity. We are all composed by stardust and these new capabilities will bring us closer to the origins of the universe and closer to the origins of life. And this is, this is simply thrilling!

[Song: Modular Odyssey Instrumental by Frenod]

HOST PADI BOYD: Next time on NASA’s Curious Universe, we have a very special Spanish edition to our mini-series. Our friends at NASA en Espanol put together a podcast episode all about this marvelous mission in Spanish.

Noelia Gonzalez: Hola Curious Universe listeners! My name is Noelia Gonzalez, and if you’re looking for more ways to learn about the Webb Space Telescope, I’ve got something special for you.

Noelia Gonzalez: We’re getting ready to release the first-ever Spanish episode of NASA’s Curious Universe all about the Webb Space Telescope.

Noelia Gonzalez: If you’re interested and want to learn more, search for el Universo Curioso de la NASA in your favorite podcast app and join me as we explore this mission and learn from the experts, all in Spanish! The episode drops December 16.

Noelia Gonzalez (Spanish): Nuestro universo es un lugar salvaje y maravilloso y, en este podcast, ¡la NASA es tu guía turística!

Noelia Gonzalez: And, don’t forget to catch the launch of Webb, set for December 22, 2021, by checking out NASA TV! And, find the latest information about the mission by visiting

[Song: Vast Universe Instrumental by Lemmon]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Katie Atkinson, Liz Landau, and Christina Dana. The Curious Universe team includes Maddie Arnold and Micheala Sosby, with support from Elissa Fielding.

HOST PADI BOYD: Special thanks to Ryland Heagy, Amber Straughn, Paul Geithner, Eric Smith, Natasha Pinol, Alise Fischer, Laura Betz, and the James Webb Space Telescope team.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review, tweeting about the show @NASA, and sharing with a friend.

HOST PADI BOYD: Go for more information.