On Friday, January 22, as the first snowflakes of a historic blizzard began piling atop America’s east coast, a team of more than twenty engineers and scientists hauled food, clothes, cots, and mattresses into a building at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The team would remain at the facility until well after the snow let up Sunday morning, keeping watch over a giant, humming “Space Environment Simulator.” The simulator is a cylindrical chamber and, as you might expect from its name, it simulates the conditions of outer space. Its metallic exterior is covered in networks of pipes. Its interior might be the coldest place on Earth. At -233 degrees Celsius (nearly 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) it is certainly colder than any of the planet’s natural environments, including the poles.
Sitting inside the Space Environment Simulator are the guts of the most far-seeing camera ever built by humans. This camera will soon be launched into deep space, to image the first stars to flare into being after the Big Bang, and maybe, if we are very lucky, the exhaled gases of life forms that live in the atmospheres of distant planets.
It has been more than 20 years since the first plans were drawn up for what is now called the James Webb Space Telescope. The Webb is the successor to history’s most productive scientific instrument, the Hubble Space Telescope, and it will pack more than 100 times that telescope’s seeing power. But its long path from back-of-the-napkin idea to tangible, spaceflight-ready hardware has been rocky. The telescope’s design and development phases were plagued by delays, and cost overruns have boosted its price tag to a cool $9 billion. In 2011, several members of the House committee that funds the Webb alleged gross mismanagement, and called for its termination.