Christmas Day is always a special day, but in 2021 the day also brought something extra special. That was the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.
There are high expectations for this telescope. The images we’ve seen from the Hubble telescope would seem hard to beat, but that is what the Webb is expected to do, to look farther into space than ever before and also farther back in time.
One of the intriguing aspects is the expectation that we’ll learn something we’ve never known before, we just don’t know what that might be.
There were all sorts of perils associated with the launch, including the launch itself, that could have turned the telescope into a very expensive piece of space junk. But it managed to make its way to a point in space, described by at least one news outlet as a spot that is nowhere.
But that nowhere is an important place because it allows the instrument a spot from which to perform its magic. The mission has cleared important hurdles, including the unfolding of its mirrors.
All this has all been going on while there have been troubling times back on Earth. It’s hard to add up all the worries in the six months since the launch. There’s the lingering threat of COVID, inflation, mass shootings, the investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade …
And there was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which returned to the forefront the fear of global annihilation from a nuclear war. An editorial cartoon at the time showed a young boy asking his grandfather what the Cold War was like and the grandfather responding, in effect, you’ll get to see.
I’m not a grandfather but I share that perspective. I’ve been attempting to declutter, and in a long-unopened box recently found an early 1960s letter to my parents from my school, about efforts to protect me in the event of a nuclear attack.
This was tangible evidence for memories that included emergency drills that led us to school basements. Even as little kids we knew this was futile, that there was no protection when it came to nuclear war.
It’s not that nuclear weapons went away after the Cold War, but the Russian invasion and the threats of Vladimir Putin returned to the forefront the reminder that our world could end in an instant. One nuclear weapon is one too many, but there are many.
In the late 1960s,in the midst of the Cold War, humans set foot on another world for the first time. At the end of that troubled decade “one small step,” as Neil Armstrong put it, expanded our vision of what is possible, as in, if we can put a man on the moon why can’t we (fill in the blank)?
It’s just possible the Webb telescope could be even more inspiring.
The first high-resolution images from the Webb are expected to be released July 12. As CNN recently put it, “We’re about to have an entirely new perspective on the universe.”
Today we could use something to bolster our faith in ourselves. Now it looks like we may just have it.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at firstname.lastname@example.org