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Webb Space Telescope: The Global Village

Season 1Dec 7, 2021

A scientist from Italy who studies baby stars. A Californian spacecraft refrigeration pioneer. A Dominican-American engineer who saw space as her refuge from a tough life at home. Meet three people who represent a small slice of the thousands who have worked on Webb worldwide.

NASA's Curious Universe

Webb Space Telescope Mini-Series

JWST Mini, Episode Three: “Webb Space Telescope: The Global Village”

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. Join NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers on a new adventure each week — all you need is your curiosity. Visit the Amazon rainforest, explore faraway galaxies, and dive into our astronaut training pool. First-time space explorers welcome.

About the Episode:

A scientist from Italy who studies baby stars. A Californian spacecraft refrigeration pioneer. A Dominican-American engineer who saw space as her refuge from a tough life at home. Meet three people who represent a small slice of the thousands who have worked on Webb worldwide.



NASA's Curious Universe

[Song: Shifting Dimensions Instrumental by Soole]

Antonella Nota:I was fortunate enough to see the telescope completed in the cleanroom at Goddard Space Flight Center. And at that moment, it kind of hits you. You’ve been working on your little thing, you know, and you say, Well, you know, it’s part of a big, big mission, and then you see it, and it’s magnificent, and it’s huge. And you’re there. And you know, you’ve been part of it. I’m getting even emotional thinking about it. But it is so incredible to know that your little tiny bit has been contributing to making that big huge observatory coming together.

Antonella Nota:…And such a large team of committed, dedicated individuals have worked tirelessly for years, through the pandemic, and through all the difficulties to make it happen. And it hits you when you see it. Because it’s really fantastic.

[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: The James Webb Space Telescope will be the biggest and most complex science telescope to ever fly in space. In the previous episodes of this mini-series, we’ve talked about the amazing science that Webb will do, and the innovative engineering that helps make it so powerful for space exploration.

HOST PADI BOYD: Putting together something this big and ambitious takes a lot of people. Teams of dedicated people around the world with many different skills and backgrounds.

HOST PADI BOYD: So let’s meet a few people helping to make this mission happen.

Antonella Nota:So, thousands of people have participated to Webb. Every single component matters, every single screw, every single detail is a key part of the success of this mission.

[Song: Big Dreams Underscore by Nonte]

HOST PADI BOYD: That’s Antonella Nota, the project scientist for Webb for the European Space Agency, or ESA.

Antonella Nota:I work out of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where we have a contingency of ESA-funded personnel in support of the mission.

HOST PADI BOYD: Along with the Canadian Space Agency, ESA is a space agency partner in the Webb mission.

Antonella Nota:The European Space Agency has contributed not only people, but two instruments.

Antonella Nota:And of course, this extraordinary observatory will be launched on a European rocket to the Ariane five. Europe is very, very committed and interested in this exciting mission. And we’re just looking forward to see, finally, the liftoff.

HOST PADI BOYD: Antonella was born in Venice, Italy, and has been with the Space Telescope Science Institute since 1986. Her role with ESA began about 10 years ago.

Antonella Nota:So my day starts very early, because I’m dealing with Europe a lot. So I have to account for the six hour difference. But as a project scientist, my job is really to make sure that the community, that the scientific community in Europe, is engaged and informed about what’s happening with Webb, about the science, about what’s coming. And my job is also to ensure that the public is fully informed.

HOST PADI BOYD: Antonella herself is part of an observing program that will look at a cluster of baby stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a small, bright galaxy in the same neighborhood as our Milky Way. These stars are surrounded by gas and dust, but Webb’s infrared vision can cut right through all that fog to see them.

Antonella Nota:We look at them in the first two or three million years, that first star cluster is like the equivalent of a first year of life for a human and we see what they do because the way they form and the way they grow will tell us what they will do when they are adult, when they are full-fledged stars.

Antonella Nota: And we think that Webb will really unveil that process completely. Because we really do not know how stars form. Because the Webb is able to see through the dust, we’ll reveal, you know, those first stages

HOST PADI BOYD: Building, integrating, and testing Webb took the efforts of thousands of people across 14 countries, 29 U.S. states, and Washington, D.C. They represent the participation of around 300 distinct companies, agencies, and universities.

HOST PADI BOYD: Having those different partners contribute expertise is crucial to the mission’s success.

[Song: Awakening Underscore by Nonte]

Antonella Nota:It is fundamental, because no agency can do it all alone. And especially if you want to do the biggest thing, you have to work at it together. That’s what diversity in science and engineering is all about, not only you have additional resources, but you have also the different perspectives, the different cultural contributions. One community is specialized in building imaging devices, another might be more specialized in building spectrograph. And you put them all together and you say my big goal is I want to see the first 400 million years in the history of this universe. And I need to design something that allows me to see it. We have seen in science, that international team are the norm. And the language of science overcomes the national barrier, overcomes the difference in the individual national languages. So it’s also — I think, is good for humanity. It helps everybody grow and it makes a much better and ambitious project at the end.

HOST PADI BOYD: On launch day, Antonella won’t be at the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, where Webb will take off from. Instead, she’ll be in Baltimore monitoring the first signals of how the telescope is doing in space. But liftoff will still be very special for her.

Antonella Nota:You know, you start thinking about all the things that can go wrong, which won’t, because people have spent incredible amount of time making sure that everything is absolutely planned to the last second to the minimum details, but still, you know, it’s it’s a career, some people have built their careers on this telescope, you watch this thing lifting off, it’s just saying goodbye to your baby, as at some level

Antonella Nota:At that point, I will have shivers down my spine.

HOST PADI BOYD: Another important part of the Webb story are the engineers who made sure the telescope’s detectors are cold enough to make sensitive measurements that no one has ever done in space before.

[Song: Hydrogen Utopia Instrumental By Gleissner]

HOST PADI BOYD: Temperature control is an essential part of designing a spacecraft, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to home refrigerators.

Ron Ross: No, I stay away from my own. You mean the one in my kitchen? I’m repairing lots of flight cryocooler refrigerators. That’s what we’re working on right now.

HOST PADI BOYD: That’s Ron Ross, and he only fixes refrigerators designed to go to space. He’s spent the last three decades working on different ways of cooling spacecraft parts. He’s been with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for…a while.

Ron Ross: I joined in, I guess, 1968, and retired in 2006. But I’m still working, even though it’s several years past retirement.

Ron Ross:Most of my life, I guess, from a recreational point of view, I grew up on our ranch in Northern California. And from the time I was six months old, until I was a senior in college, I spent every summer on the ranch. And I don’t know if you know anything about ranchers, ranchers do everything. So you become a jack of all trades, because you work on your tractors, you build new tractors, you, you build equipment, you do everything.

Ron Ross:And so I was sort of a born engineer from the very beginning. And I went through high school, and they didn’t necessarily like what I was doing, I sort of graduated in halfway down.

HOST PADI BOYD: Ron didn’t immediately enroll at a university — he didn’t apply to any. Instead, he went to Pasadena City College, a community college near Los Angeles, before transferring to UC Berkeley to major in engineering.

Ron Ross:And so the first summer I didn’t spend at the ranch, I worked for Aerojet Corporation, down here in Southern California, working on reentry vehicles and Apollo thrusters and stuff on their engine test line and this sort of thing.

HOST PADI BOYD: Ron’s first taste of JPL involved working on a concept to use airbags to land something on Mars. This was still the late 1960s, so nothing made on Earth had ever touched the Red Planet at this point.

[Song: State of Matter Instrumental by Gleissner]

Ron Ross: It was a fun time back then because the whole space program, you know, everything was brand new, nobody been in space, nobody knew how things worked in space, how material survived there. And so you had to think outside the box on everything. It made it a just a fascinating environment to be in because you were learning all the time, because you were running tests and doing things essentially that had never been done before.

HOST PADI BOYD: In the 1990s, Ron got assigned to a different area entirely: Making space refrigerators.

Ron Ross:Well, I’ve never done anything in coolers before. So this was just switching total careers. But it was, it’s the same job in terms of how do you learn about new technology and get up on the curve.

HOST PADI BOYD: You might be asking yourself, “isn’t space already cold?” That’s true, space is cold, but in order to make extremely sensitive measurements of faint light, your detector needs to be as cold as possible.

Ron Ross: So if you’re trying to take a picture of something in daylight, you’re okay with a room temperature sensor. But if you want to take a picture of something that’s very cold and just emitting in the infrared, then you have to get the detector down colder than the thing you’re trying to take a picture of. And, in fact, as you start looking out at deep space where things are out there, in the Kelvin range, very, very low temperatures, then you have to start cooling the detector down to extremely low temperatures.

HOST PADI BOYD: The community of engineers working on cryocoolers spans the globe, but it’s still a close-knit group, just like with Webb.

Ron Ross:So it’s, it’s a fun program.

Ron Ross:It’s a very international group of people that are working very collaboratively on it.

HOST PADI BOYD: Many kinds of life circumstances lead people to work on the Webb mission. While Ron’s path took root on a California ranch, Scarlin Hernandez at the Space Telescope Science Institute has a different story.

[Song: Flowing with Time by Lhommet]

Scarlin Hernandez:My name is Scarlin Hernandez and I’m a spacecraft engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope mission. I develop code that helps us to make sure that the spacecraft is functioning optimally while on orbit.

HOST PADI BOYD: Born in the Dominican Republic, Scarlin came to Brooklyn when she was a young girl.

Scarlin Hernandez:My father immediately abandoned us. So here we were in Brooklyn, New York with no place to call home, no money. We didn’t know the English language. We were living in poverty. There were times we didn’t know when we were going to eat the next day.

HOST PADI BOYD: In the midst of these challenges, Scarlin found refuge in looking up.

Scarlin Hernandez:When I was a child, I would actually gaze up at the stars at night in the city apartment that I lived in with the police sirens going by, I would just stare out of our little window at the stars and just lose myself, really. I wished I could just grab one with my bare hands, if I could just reach far enough. Of course, I wished upon a star like a lot of our stories start, you know, when you hear them as a kid. I just felt they were magical.

Scarlin Hernandez:And to be honest with you, school was the only thing that I had to keep me distracted, to keep me from thinking about my problems. So I immersed myself in my studies, and I started getting straight A’s. And then one day, I became the first in my family to graduate middle school, and high school. And then thankfully, the National Science Foundation awarded me a full ride to college, based on my, my grades and my scholarly merit, and then I became first generation to graduate college as well.

HOST PADI BOYD: An internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center turned into a full-time job working on NASA missions. Her first spacecraft was called the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which operated from 1997 to 2015.

Scarlin Hernandez:After assuming some roles there as mission planning lead, and systems engineer, propulsion engineer, power engineer, I decided to move on to a deep space mission, which is the James Webb Space Telescope mission at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and I’ve been working James Webb for about five, six years now.

Scarlin Hernandez:I work on the flight operations team. And I think there’s about 40 of us on the team. And we’re all in charge of different parts of either the spacecraft or the instruments on the observatory.

HOST PADI BOYD: Most recently, Scarlin and her colleagues have been doing practice runs for how all of the different parts of Webb are going to unfold. All of this will be commanded remotely back on Earth as Webb soars to one million miles away.

HOST PADI BOYD: Everything has to go exactly right, so the rehearsals are very detailed. They have to prepare for all kinds of unexpected situations.

[Song: Imagine Underscore by Gleissner]

Scarlin Hernandez:I work on the deployment control subsystem and also we do a lot of work on the propulsion system as well.

Scarlin Hernandez:I helped with testing out some of the scripts and procedures for the optical telescope element, which consists of the mirrors, controlling the mirrors.

Scarlin Hernandez:So you want to test like you fly, fly like you test, and we are making sure that everything is going to be working how we want it to.

HOST PADI BOYD: Even though she works on the engineering side, Scarlin never loses sight of the big picture of this mission.

Scarlin Hernandez:What’s exciting to me, are the mission goals. Helping humanity discover the unknown. Just learning more about our universe. That’s what’s fascinating to me.

HOST PADI BOYD: Scarlin is very passionate about reaching out to women and underrepresented communities to inspire them to go into STEM fields. She has some words of wisdom from her own journey.

Scarlin Hernandez: You should never be afraid to ask for help. we work in the technical world, and things are hard for a reason. So sometimes it takes a team to figure something out, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of about it.

Scarlin Hernandez:I never grew up seeing STEM heroes in the media, and certainly not the Spanish media. All I saw was Selena and Jennifer Lopez, both of which I absolutely love. Sometimes I like to think of myself as the J-Lo of STEM.

Scarlin Hernandez:A lot of the times I was the only woman in class. I always felt it was important to represent and give back and not only show that it’s possible, but to show that you can, you can thrive. If you work hard, and you take advantage of the opportunities you’re given, you can, you can make it.

Scarlin Hernandez:So here’s my message to the world. You are truly in control of your own destiny. I’m a Hispanic female who grew up in poverty and abuse. But I’m also an engineer that works on a NASA mission. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Go for what you want. And don’t stop until you get it. No matter your background or your circumstance, crawl, walk, run and jump towards your dream.

Scarlin Hernandez:When you believe in yourself, you can do anything.

[Song: Modular Odyssey Instrumental by Frenod]

HOST PADI BOYD: Next time on NASA’s Curious Universe…

Rudi Albat:The day before the launch, we all have together, all the launch team, a minute. And the boss is asking around in a circle… did you forget something?. And this is really an important moment where we all go inside and we check and re-check. It is the moment we decide that, yes we are ready. We are ready to go.

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: Still curious about NASA? You can send us questions about this episode or a previous one and we’ll try to track down the answers! You can email a voice recording or send a written note Go for more information.