Thursday, 5 May 2022
Friday, 15 April 2022
Monday, 28 February 2022
Tuesday, 28 December 2021
Since the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on December 25, a few people have asked if I will be a writing a book about JWST to follow my recently published book, Not Yet Imagined: A Study of Hubble Space Telescope Operations (NASA, 2021).
The answer is no, and there is a story behind that ‘no.’
There is an excellent book on JWST being written by Dr. Robert W. Smith, who also wrote the classic study of how Hubble was conceived and built, a process that also took decades. His book on Hubble, The Space Telescope, A study of NASA, science, technology and politics, was first published in 1989, before Hubble was launched, and an updated paperback version was published in 1993.
His book contains many insights on how astronomers overcame divisions within their ranks to win government approval for Hubble, and then it outlines the work that went into building this space observatory.
Since it explained one of the most prominent space programs of its time, I purchased Dr. Smith’s book for my library when it came out and read it with great interest. Dr. Smith was based at the National Air and Space Museum and Johns Hopkins University when he wrote that book, and he later moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where he became chair of the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.
As the new century began, I had written my first book of space history, Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race (Apogee Books, 2001), and I decided to earn a master’s degree in space studies at the University of North Dakota. When I completed that degree I decided to pursue further studies, and a promising avenue appeared at the University of Alberta.
I visited Dr. Smith in 2003 to inquire about studying the history of technology with him as my faculty advisor. I remember that he encouraged me to pursue studies for a Ph.D. That day we also discussed plans for a gigantic new space telescope that had just been named after the late NASA administrator, James Webb.
I spent the next few years on my Ph.D. studies, benefitting from Dr. Smith’s guidance and the many insights he had gained about Big Science projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope. By then, Dr. Smith had begun closely following the development of JWST, and I occasionally helped him with that work as graduate students often do.
My own Ph.D. studies focused on the years between World War II and the beginnings of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. That resulted in my dissertation, which became a book, The Bomb and America’s Missile Age (Johns Hopkins, 2018).
After I completed my dissertation, NASA was looking for someone to write a history of Hubble operations. Since Dr. Smith was working on his JWST book, he was unavailable for that project. Although I had not previously thought of writing a book about Hubble, I was available. With Dr. Smith's encouragement, I competed for that job and was selected in 2014 to write the book that covers the first three decades of HST operations. While writing that book, I received a great deal of helpful advice from Dr. Smith.
While at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as I conducted research for my Hubble book, I regularly looked in on JWST, which was being assembled in a gigantic cleanroom there. JWST appears in my book, and scientists hope to coordinate obervations between the two space telescopes once JWST begins operations.
Both the Hubble and Webb telescopes are highly expensive and complicated, and both underwent challenging development processes before they got to their launch pads. The pre-launch history of JWST goes back more than two decades, so Dr. Smith’s upcoming book will be a substantial one. I don’t know the title yet, but I am looking forward to reading it when it is published.
I hope to write at least one more book to add to the six I have already written. I haven’t settled on a topic, but I have been keeping busy during the pandemic writing papers on the history of space astronomy in Canada.