The James Webb Space Telescope has begun an exciting program of astronomy, providing unique insights into the history and structure of stars and galaxies. This accomplishment demonstrates the fundamental strength of U.S. science and technology, and will pay dividends well into the future.
No other country could have led such an ambitious scientific and engineering project. Some might wonder if that is because no one else wants to spend ten billion dollars on a single science effort.
But that misses both the technical and economic impact of Webb, and the benefits it has for national reputation. Webb reminds us of the depth of the U.S. science and technology bench, at a time when many question whether the United States has the technical know-how to compete with a rising China committed to winning through technology.
Web is Already Providing Technical Benefits
Webb is an engineering marvel. It took twenty years to complete, and there were so many problems to solve: a mirror with over six times the collecting area of 1990’s Hubble Space Telescope; calibration to less than millionths of a meter; precision control at a distance four times farther than the moon; maintaining the instrument temperature at 450 Fahrenheit degrees below zero for a decade of operations; and fitting all that into a package that could be folded up, launched, and reassemble itself deep in space.
All the money, invention, and engineering skill was spent here on Earth before launch. Webb-driven advancements in precision manufacturing, measurement, and stabilization have already paid off for medicine, drone technology, and unique materials. The American optics industry, a national technical treasure, is further ahead of the state-of-the-practice because of the work on Webb.
Webb Will Draw Generations into Science and Technology
These technical advances provide positive feedback for development of a new generation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals. A new group of techies came of age during the development of Webb. The telescope will provide scientific data to enable another generation of scientists just starting their graduate work. Webb’s discoveries, and the audaciousness of its technology, will excite yet another generation by demonstrating the wonders created by work in STEM.
This time the generation excited about science will get to use their skills on exhilarating space programs. Billions in private and public investment reflects how space technology has become critical to civilization. The world relies on satellites for navigation, communications, timing of financial transactions, monitoring of environmental conditions and weather, worldwide access to digital broadband, and, increasingly, monitoring commercial shipping and resources around the world. The space age that writers promised in the 1960s seems upon us, and the United States is at the forefront.
Space science is relevant to U.S. competitiveness with China for technical leadership in the 21st century. China is investing heavily in space demonstrations to show that it can be a spacefaring nation, which they believe is a prerequisite for great power status. Operating a rover on the far side of the moon since 2019—something the U.S. and Russia never did—was a challenge that brought their best technical teams together, and that they hoped would excite the world. China may invest more than the United States in its state-controlled technology industries. But China cannot match the U.S. combination of government investments in projects that stretch technical capabilities, and a private space industry that finds new applications for space technology.
Webb Suggests a Hopeful Technical Future by Working Together
Webb was an international project, with fourteen counties contributing. The European Space Agency created some of the scientific instruments that make Webb effective, provided the Ariane 5 to get Webb off the Earth, and will have over a dozen scientists working at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. A U.S. strength is sharing with partners and sharing science with the world. This also tells people who the U.S. wants to be as a nation.
Which comes back to the most important thing about Webb: it truly is a scientific mission, one focused on understanding the evolution of the universe and the characteristics of solar systems and galaxies beyond our own. Webb shows the world that the United States is a society willing to be curious, to open our eyes to the wonders around us. And willing to embark upon almost-impossible technical projects to do so.
In the world of science and technology, I wouldn’t want to bet against the United States and her friends.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other U.S. Government agency.