At NASA, the future is all about looking deeper into the past.
On the first day of the BSA’s Report to the Nation trip, the delegates got a behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where astronomers are perfecting a new telescope that’ll let them look back deeper into the history of the universe than ever before.
It is the 25th year that Goddard has hosted the delegates — with NASA scientists volunteering a Saturday afternoon and evening to entertain and educate some very grateful Scouts and Venturers.
The massive Goddard complex is probably best known for giving us the Hubble Space Telescope. But Hubble has nothing on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in 2018. Astronomers at Goddard are hard at work replacing the 27-year-old Hubble with the James Webb, which will be 100 times more powerful. (You can watch the construction progress live on NASA’s “Webb Cam.”)
The Scouts’ tour guide was Ray Ohl, whose night job is Cub Scout volunteer and day job is optical physicist for NASA.
When meeting some of the BSA’s best and brightest, he did what anyone would do. He put on his recruiting hat.
“There aren’t that many Americans interesting in engineering, so go back to your packs and troops and tell them to become engineers,” Ohl said. “I wish I was your age right now, because this would be the exciting time to start a career at NASA.”
Hannah Wheaton, a delegate from Virginia, asked Ohl about the new telescope’s purpose.
“The James Webb Space Telescope is going to focus on that Big Bang question,” Ohl said.
He explained that NASA doesn’t have the technology to see what happened in that window after the Big Bang but before the creation of planets. The James Webb’s ability to see in the infrared will unlock a window into those early days of the universe.
Ohl explained that the James Webb also will further investigate the seven earth-sized planets whose discovery made headlines last month.
Next, Ohl and two of his NASA colleagues showed the Scouts the clean room — the largest of its kind in the world — where the James Webb is being built. The clean room keeps dust and debris away from the James Webb, where even a speck could harm the telescope’s sensitive optics and sensors.
Then the group visited some equipment used to test a payload before it’s sent into orbit. The Scouts marveled at an acoustic testing room where — behind doors a foot thick — scientists blast sound waves at a payload using six-foot speakers. There was also a giant vacuum chamber, a centrifuge that can produce up to 30 G’s and a big table that just shakes everything around for a while.
It was remarkable, but my favorite moment of the visit was when Ohl asked if anyone had any technical questions “or is anyone interested in a career in engineering?”
“Now I am,” said Gilberto, a delegate from Rhode Island.
“That’s a great answer,” Ohl said.
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Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland. See more photos here.