Why the James Webb Space Telescope Reflects the Spirit of the Season

'Twas the flight before Christmas.
Grant Currin
An Ariane 5 rocket blasts into space. An Ariane 5 rocket at blastoff.

The James Webb Space Telescope — the most powerful ever built — is scheduled to launch on Christmas morning. Webb will capture light that has been traveling through space for 13 billion years. If all goes to plan, the telescope will be responsible for images that show both the earliest events ever recorded (perhaps the birth of some of the first-ever stars) and of the farthest objects ever documented. But Webb isn’t just made to look as far as possible. When it trains its huge, gold-plated eye on other planets in the Milky Way, the data its spectrographs beam to Earth will tell scientists which, if any, of the rocky exoplanets in our cosmic neighborhood contain the chemical building blocks of life.

But none of this is a sure thing. Assuming Webb really does launch on Christmas morning (and that’s definitely not a safe assumption), the craft will spend six nail-biting months traveling nearly a million miles, cooling down, and unfolding its 21-foot-wide (2.4 meters) mirror and tennis-court-sized sunshield. There’s plenty of room for error, including 344 “single-point failures” that could seriously disrupt the mission before it really gets started.

To celebrate this highly anticipated launch, Interesting Engineering commissioned poet and science writer Krishna Sharma to place Webb in the broader context of human exploration and discovery.


‘Twas the Night before Christmas (Ode to James Webb)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the globe,
Bated breath for the launch of a celestial probe.
A beryllium body with gold plated eyes,
Its name is James Webb, its dominion: the skies.

The stars have all witnessed our great transformation,
From painting in caves to erecting space stations.
How did we get here? From fire-less days,
To engines of steel setting jet fuel ablaze?

From when humans first walked we’ve admired the sky,
To navigate seas or to simply ask “Why?”
Or to measure the time as the moon flows through phases.
From waxing to waning, we followed its traces.

Our history’s rooted in stargazers screaming:
"Look up, at the unrivaled splendor of evening!"
Then passion for stargazing turned into science,
When scholars of old tracked the movements of giants.

The Persians wrote texts with mathematical scripture,
Foundational texts that would fill the big picture.
And Renaissance scholars had theorized and pondered
On how the Earth rotated, wobbled, and wandered.

The creation of glass curved precisely for light
Passing through to put things far away in our sight
Was the closest we came to the surface of Venus
Or seeing what oddities orbit between us.

Now centuries later, we’ve mastered the atom,
Ingenious designs early man couldn’t fathom.
But the vision of old still remains deeply ours:
To explore the enigma of planets and stars.

From whence did we come and to where shall we go?
Our desire, our passion: to research, to know.
Thirty years in the making, this new telescope,
Generations have strived for this vessel of hope.

See it pierce through the atmosphere, optics all gleaming,
A cathedral for stargazing, physics, and dreaming.
To peer back in time, yes it’s fully prepared,
Especially since that one cable’s repaired.

A minor new setback, another delay.
We'll hopefully watch you ascend Christmas day!
Then for 29 days you'll unfurl on your own
And fly to your one million mile-away home.

Aluminum, glass, carbon fiber, and steel,
We’ll perceive cosmic whispers, the past is revealed.
And we’ll pick up the waves from when light was first birthed,
Which have crossed galaxies now to end up near Earth.

Infrared secrets will soon be decoded.
Can we parse when the first of the stars had exploded?
We’ll try. Scientists come from dozens of nations,
To help you, James Webb, find our cosmic creation.

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