The incredible story of how NASA moved the $10 billion James Webb Telescope

As a senior Webb project scientist watched, he was "almost in tears."
Brad Bergan
A composite image of Webb in space (left), and the Webb telescope in transit (right).1, 2

Everyone is excited about the seemingly endless potential for the James Webb Space Telescope as it explores unseen depths of the universe, examines the viability of alien worlds, and more.

But it wasn't built in space.

Before Webb could take its rightful place orbiting the second Lagrange point (L2), it had to be shipped to its European Space Agency launch pad at Kourou, in French Guiana — from A Northrop Grumman clean room, in Redondo Beach, California.

That's a 5,800-mile journey and one where at any moment, the James Webb Space Telescope could be irreversibly ruined in transit. Luckily for us, the $10 billion instrument survived the trip, but it wasn't an easy undertaking, according to NASA.

Webb in Transit
Webb in transit, being loaded onto a boat. Source: Mike McClare / NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA moved the James Webb Space Telescope in a "dry-nitrogen climate-controlled environment"

The James Webb Space Telescope wasn't built in a single facility, state, or even one country. "Webb is a product of the world, with cameras from Europe and Canada, and contributions from most U.S. states," says Webb's Deputy Senior Project Scientist, Jonathan Gardner, in the NASA blog. At the time of his comments in October 2021, Webb was in transit to Kourou and its final launch point, but the new satellite parts had been moved before.

"The components of Webb have traveled before; the complex 15-stage journey of the mirrors," for example, says Gardner. "After finishing the decade-long assembly and testing process, Webb was packed into the STARRS transport container.

With Webb nestled safely in its cushioned support structure and dry-nitrogen climate-controlled environment, the truck driver reached a maximum speed of 7 miles per hour on the middle-of-the-night journey from a Northrop Grumman cleanroom to the port at Seal Beach."

Webb Panama
Webb passing through the Panama Canal. Source: The Panama Canal Authority / NASA

Webb made its way through the Panama Canal in 8 hours

The James Webb Space Telescope was a fragile package — possibly the most delicate in history (although it might be challenging to quantify that statement). This is why NASA took every precaution to ensure Webb wouldn't receive a scratch on its journey, from excruciatingly slow speeds to extra padding, dry-nitrogen climate control, and probably a bit of luck. After the 7-mile-per-hour drive, Webb was loaded onto its cargo hold and then departed, on September 26, 2021.

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Then "the MN Colibri sailed along Baja California and reached the Panama Canal," says Gardner. "Webb took eight hours to traverse through three locks of the Canal and entered the Atlantic Ocean on October 6." This was a crucial component of its journey since, on the open ocean, more unpredictable events can occur.

ESA CNES Arianespace
Webb arriving at the Arianespace processing facility. Source: ESA / CNES / Arianespace

From NASA to Kourou, Webb's beginnings foreshadowed greatness

"After continuing down the South American coast, Webb arrived in Kourou on October 12 [2021] and was unloaded amid the palm trees and tropical birds of French Guiana," explains Gardner in the NASA post. Upon arriving at the Arianespace processing facility, Webb still had to undergo a handful of last-minute electrical tests, insulation closeouts, and spacecraft fueling.

End of the beginning - The James Webb Space Telescope lifted off on atop an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25, 2021, and reached L2 on January 24, less than a month later. Its primary challenges in space-related to activating its parts, unfolding into its final form, and syncing up the mirrors of its golden-crusted mirrors. But it's important to note that the journey to the launchpad — even for NASA's flagship missions — can be just as painstakingly tenuous.

"As I watched the video of Webb telescope being loaded into the hull of the MN Colibri ship and heading out to sea, I found myself almost in tears," reflects Gardner in the NASA post about Webb's journey. We can be sure to expect similar moments as the new telescope array reveals new unimaginable wonders about the universe.