Sometimes amazing science happens in the background with little or no public attention. All these years of hard work and gradual progress go unnoticed except by those who live and work through it. Now, a new book detailing the creation of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) aims to change that by sharing photos, diagrams and behind-the-scenes information on the science and pioneers behind the project.
Inside the Star Factory: The Making of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Largest and Most Powerful Space Observatory gives us a comprehensive summary of an astronomical feat that required more than 100 million hours of labor over 30 years. It covers everything from the initial concept of the idea to its Christmas 2021 launch, providing a solid picture of what went into the design, engineering and testing of such a masterpiece. Science writer Christopher Wanjack provides an in-depth overview of JWST’s history, but more than that, the book serves as an “illustrated guide [that] shows readers the heady world of scientific discovery at the very limits of human knowledge.
All of the more than 100 images of the telescope’s construction were taken by Chris Gunn, who joined the project 15 years ago and was the only photographer to have such broad access to JWST’s development and launch. Throughout his long career, he has focused on creating complex images and videos related to science and technology, with previous experience filming the last servicing mission of the Hubble Space Telescope. His work brings NASA’s largest telescope endeavor face-to-face, humanizing the entire task and showing those who have devoted so much of their time to a single goal.
We had a chance to speak with Gunn about his new book to learn more about his process and experience. Here’s what he revealed.
PopSci: How did you get involved with NASA and JWST?
Gunn: I worked as a photographer on the last Hubble servicing mission from 2006 to 2009. When that mission ended, I was asked to join the JWST team. I never imagined that I would be involved in such a long-term project.
PopSci: What was the most challenging part of shooting the project?
Gunn: The most challenging part of shooting this project was also the most exciting: the ever-evolving subject. Seeing the pieces of the observatory come together was amazing, but the trick was to keep a consistent look and feel in my photos throughout the project. I started paying more attention to the environment I was photographing and bringing elements of that environment into my compositions. When I could light my subjects, I took great care to do so subtly. In the end, I realized that JWST’s geometry is photographed beautifully, but any distortion eats away at the beauty. Over time, I became a more selective shooter with more restraint.
PopSci: What is your favorite moment (or moments) from your time with the team?
Gunn: My favorite moments include the arrival of the first mirrors, the first time I saw the optical system located inside NASA’s Johnson Test Chamber, and the coupling of the optical system to the spacecraft’s sun shield and main bus. During each of these stages of the project, the clean rooms were filled with a sense of awe and wonder. They’re generally not particularly loud, but they were super quiet for those moments. I felt like I was witnessing something great that humanity was accomplishing.
PopSci: What were your cameras and lenses?
Gunn: One of the most interesting things about working on such a long-term project is watching the advances in photographic technology over the years. I originally shot with Nikon’s D3s and D3X cameras and eventually settled on the D4s for a few years. Nikon’s 14-24mm 2.8 was my favorite lens early on.
After the observatory was built, I switched to a 50 megapixel Hasselblad-H medium format camera. The Hassy gave me more resolution and more importantly allowed me to shoot with less distortion. Later in the project I acquired a mirrorless Hasselblad which I used with adapted H lenses. The Hasselblad 50mm was probably my favorite lens as it offered a sharp, distortion free and wide perspective. Medium format cameras also forced me to slow down and concentrate on composition.
PopSci: Do you have a no. 1 picture from the series?
Gunn: I have quite a few favorites – they’re all in the book. If I had to pick one, it’s the image used for the cover. It was taken at the end of a long day and depicts the only time the secondary mirror was deployed using flight engines. This is the smaller mirror in the center. The center of the primary mirror reflects the secondary mirror and you can see the primary mirror in this reflection. Look closely and you can see me in that reflection. The selfie was unintentional.
Buys Inside the Star Factory: The Making of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Largest and Most Powerful Space Observatory here.