[I wrote this on Thursday night… I am deeply thankful that so far, so good.]
I am so excited! December 25th is almost here. And what an extraordinary day it will be. No, I’m not referring to Christmas. At least not for me. This Shabbat morning, at long last, after more than two decades of budget cuts, cost overruns, internecine squabbling amongst astronomers, feckless politicians trying to hack it to pieces, accidents, errors, Covid, and a price tag of 10 billion dollars, the James Webb Space Telescope – JWST will launch from Kourou in French Guiana. Kourou is closer to the Earth’s equator than launch sites like Cape Canaveral. This takes full advantage of the Earth’s rotational speed. That rotational speed (460 meters/second) gives the launch an extra velocity boost, allowing the rocket to carry a bit more payload to space than it otherwise would were it launched from a higher latitude. (Maybe that’s already too much information… but I thought you should know.)
JWST is a classic example of American chutzpah and brilliance. NASA is sending this extraordinary product of singular aerospace engineering into deep space, beyond the reach of human hands. It’ll be too far away if, God forbid, it needs to be adjusted or repaired. There are 344 “points of failure”, i.e., unique programs or transitions that could scuttle the JWST, rendering it into another piece of space junk. This is science without a net.
To get JWST on the launchpad required the cooperation of scientists and engineers from all over the world. Yes: cooperation, a noun that we don’t use much these days. Cooperation amongst people with competing interests and projects and concerns. People realized that there was a greater good than their own individual needs or research or grants. They saw a chance to be in on a project that will change the ways we understand the creation of the Universe.
I’ve listened to countless press conversations about, and descriptions of JWST. One of the points they all make is that the JWST essentially offers us the experience of time travel. By using the infrared light band, we will be able to detect light that traverses billions of years from insanely far points in Space. This will let us see the earliest moments in the life of the cosmos. We will look back in time. Who knows all that we may see?
How lucky we humans are right now, despite Covid and divisiveness and a million other horrors, to be alive for this moment. Despite our frailty and flaws, humans have figured out how to not just imagine what’s out there, but to go find it. This is a triumphal moment for all humanity.
I wish we possessed some extraordinary technology that would allow us to see back into our past. Of course, I’d love to see who created the first cave paintings. I’d love to know what it looked like when the rabbis chose to embrace a new Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple. We all have our lists of such events. But I wish I could look through a devise to see my great grandparents, learn about who they were, how they lived their lives. I wish I could discern the life path of my father’s father, who he was and why he acted as he did. My personal list of things I wish I could see from the past is a long one.
It seems to be the case by all the laws of physics and time that we cannot travel into the past. The very fiber of the Universe seems to make visiting the past impossible. We may get a solid glimpse into the earliest origins of the Universe, but there is no instrument to look deeply back into ourselves. We don’t have access to our history. All we have is imagination, love, and stories. Which are, after all, the prime ingredients of Judaism.
I will be up early on December 25th watching the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. You can join me. I’ll be cheering on the huge launch vehicle that is thrusting the JWST into Space, a million miles away. I am hoping, with all my heart, that it will get to where it must go. I am praying that, due to the genius and hard work of so many people from so many places, the JWST will successfully pass through all 344 points of failure unscathed, open those mirrors, and reveal the glory of how it all began: how we all began. Yes, it will be a true shehechiyanu moment, a time of blessing to be a living witness to this selfless human endeavor.