To the Edge of the Universe

By Natalie Perlin and David Larter

Four Employees Share Their Experience Shaping the Webb Launch

By transforming our understanding of the universe and our place in it, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) has the potential to change the course of humankind. Webb has already transformed the lives of many Northrop Grumman employees who worked tirelessly to make its journey — decades in the making — a reality.

Meet four of the people who played critical roles in making Webb’s launch a success.

technicians in bunnysuits working on spacecraft
It was Hillary’s voice that the world heard as Webb went through its sunshield deployment sequence.

Faheem: The Guide

Test engineer Faheem first started working on Webb when he was 16 years old, interning with Northrop Grumman in the early phases of the telescope’s development.

“Back then, it seemed to me Webb was really just two electrical panels,” said Faheem. “It’s been amazing to see it grow into a full observatory and now, all the way into space.”

On launch day, Faheem was manning a console at the European Space Agency’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, making sure all his assigned sensors and systems — which pointed and directed Webb on its journey to Lagrange Point 2, one million miles from Earth — were in working order. After launch, Faheem continued to work with his team to steer Webb safely to its new home. The final burn, which happened 30 days after launch and put Webb on its final course, felt like the culmination of a long journey.

“Once we got past that last burn, it was a surreal experience,” Faheem said. “I’ve been working on this since 2016. It made me even more passionate about space exploration.”

Natalie: The Planner

Prior to launch, much was written about Webb’s 344 single points of possible failure, 107 of which were the sunshield’s membrane release devices. For test engineer Natalie, that meant developing detailed plans and procedures for all 107 of them.

In the months leading up to the launch, Natalie’s work life was consumed with developing, reviewing and testing those plans and, if problems arose, working to find a path forward.

“When I was struggling or dealing with challenges, I would literally look up at the spacecraft and think ‘This is all worth it,’” said Natalie, who watched the launch on NASA Television from her home near Redondo Beach, California.

With the sunshield fully deployed, Natalie — who started at Northrop Grumman in November 2019 — has moved into a new role with the company, but she’s confident that her work on Webb has set her up for a great career.

Ralph: The Hands

On December 19, 2021, Multi-Layer Insulation Manager, Ralph, who had been in Kourou since October 2021, completed Webb’s final thermal insulation. This complex task shields the telescope from external elements while still allowing it to deploy.

“Knowing that you are the final person to touch Webb is an incredible honor. It’s surreal,” said Ralph, who hurried home for Christmas after this final task.

He described watching the launch with his family as an emotional experience.

“Ultimately, it’s always about the people,” Ralph said. “With the grit and the perseverance that developed over time, we had this ‘can’t lose’ mentality that we were going to be successful in the end because we were doing things the right way.”

Ralph stressed that Webb has been surrounded by a trusted and dedicated team every step of the way — including unfailingly supportive families, who deserve recognition for the many sacrifices they made.

“I may have been the last one to touch Webb,” said Ralph. “But I was not alone. It was the whole team performing that last step.”

Hillary: The Voice

Hillary, a structural engineer supporting Webb’s sunshield deployments, was sitting on console — the launch’s operations center — in the Mission Operations Center in Baltimore, Maryland, during the launch. It was her voice the world heard as Webb went through its sunshield deployment sequence.

It felt fitting, given how Webb has shaped Hillary’s life and driven her to see the bigger picture.

“This mission lit a fire in me,” said Hillary, who started on Webb as an analyst in 2014. “The experience made me realize I want to be a part of driving missions forward and making the big ideas happen.”

That fire has extended to her personal life, where she strives to chase the big moments and take calculated risks, knowing that hard work pays off in the end.

Webb’s journey is far from over. Check out all of the other Webb content on One Digital. For a look at the launch and all other major Webb milestones, visit the NASA Webb video archive.

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