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December 26th, 2021

We Went To Space To Discover The Universe And We Discovered Ourselves

That’s a paraphrase of something Neil deGrasse Tyson once said about going to the moon. We went to the Moon, and discovered the Earth. What I’ve learned from 23+ years working at the Space Telescope Science Institute, first on the Hubble Space Telescope grant management system, and then JWST integration and test, is how deeply human that desire is to know more about the cosmos. All the tribes of the Earth share it. And doing that work not only gives us a better understanding of the universe, but also of each other. 

Webb launched from the European Spaceport in French Guiana. It’s a cooperative project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). The morning of the launch I was at home watching the event on NASA TV, streamed through my Roku box. As we got down to the final minutes of the countdown, I was hearing NASA commentary in English, but the mission operation center in Kourou is run by the French, and all the call outs I was used to hearing from Cape Canaveral, I was hearing now in French. I don’t know much of any French, and yet I could follow along because I knew the drill; I’d watched this over and over and over again since the first Mercury astronauts went up. Hearing it in French for the first time, it struck me how Webb was a human project.

For a moment we were all earthlings with a common purpose. I’d heard that said over and over during Apollo, and I could see the truth of it, but my reference back then was still firmly planted in the United States. This was a European launch. It was their baby, with ours on top of it. I was watching it happen from the European point of view. But even our baby on top of that rocket, the telescope itself, was a project of many different countries. And I knew that for a fact, because for the past couple decades I’d been living it at the Institute.

I was raised by a single divorced mother and made my way there by way of restoring shortwave radios and building my own computer from parts I got at a HAM Fest. I taught myself how to program it, and that path eventually led to my becoming a software developer, and eventually to the Institute. And there I was working side by side with scientists, astronomers, computer geeks with multiple college degrees in computer science. But also facilities people, AV nerds, public outreach specialists. Many people, from many walks of life worked on this thing. I could walk the hallways and hear English spoken, but also other languages. We had astronomers from all over the globe working there. And we’re located on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, where kids from all over the world come to learn. Practically every human tribe on Earth had a hand in the work we do.

For two decades I have been surrounded by this culture, this deeply human culture of science and exploration. It has kept me sane through the past several years more than I knew.

And so yesterday morning was a very spiritually uplifting event. Something I really needed to see in this horrible time of rising fascism, conspiracy theory kookery, anti-science nuttiness. From all walks of life and every corner of the Earth we came together and put a new instrument up into space because we wanted to know more about the universe that we were born to. I got back my view of the human status. We can do good things. We can make progress. 

We went into space, and we discovered ourselves.

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