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15th May 2024

Diary: former Webb Space Telescope head Carl Starr on the space sector and journeying to other planets

Carl Starr


I worked on a programme with NASA for 27 years doing the James Webb Space Telescope. It was around the early 2000s, and I was based in California. I’d just finished launching one of the-earth observing satellites which NASA was doing, when my buddy came into the office and said: “We’re going to build a telescope. Want to join?”” How long will it be?” “It’ll only be a few years.” Twenty years later, I was still working on it.


When I started at JWST, there were three of us. I ended up being in the highest role, the Mission Operations Manager, but I began as an operations engineer. We grew to 700 people – it changed over the years. If you keep your eyes open, people come and people go, and there are always opportunities on a large project like that.


The telescope is rewriting astronomers’ and cosmologists’ understanding of how the universe works and how it was created. There are disruptions into the Big Bang Theory. Some of its measurements and observations are baffling scientists: we’re looking at galaxies which shouldn’t be where they are, and making us think the universe may be older than we thought. It really is an engineering marvel. Whatever it takes a picture of it’s incredibly accurate. Our basic understanding is that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and that galaxies didn’t start forming until about 500,000 years into that process. But the telescope is taking pictures of galaxies which are older still – and that means we got something wrong somewhere. Scientists are baffled by that, and it can be funny to see them try to explain it: they can’t.



I don’t think people really appreciate what it took to get it there. You see on TV programmes about how we invented ten different technologies to make the telescope work: that engineering side is awesome. But to truly operate it was something else: it doesn’t operate itself. That’s been lost: we’re talking about regular people who worked it day to day, and planned its operations. When it first went into orbit it was 24/7. Who are these people who make this happen every day? It’s not the astronomers.


Up until now, nobody has had something this powerful with which to look at anything. They’re just surprised by everything they see. Think of the early phones – they took quite good pictures. Then they came up with the digital camera and the pictures were amazing. Television is the same: now everybody has such good resolution on their TV that people on the screen looks almost 3D. The telescope is like that: the resolution of the image and the crispness of its data is just really cool. We won’t know for a good while the data is telling us but the astronomical community is already very excited by the data we’re getting.


The more the telescope gets used and looks for other signs of world, it makes me feel more special that there’s life on this planet to this degree. There may be life out there, but I always re-centre myself and think: ‘We’re pretty special – look at what we’ve done as a species.’ Maybe there is life in this area of the universe: but we constantly look at thousands of planets, and there’s isn’t life there so far. In the end, every observation solidifies that we are special – that doesn’t have to make us big-headed. In fact, it’s humbling.


If we did discover life on another planet, that would be a game-changer. But then we’d have to think about how to get there, and we don’t have very advanced jet propulsion systems. It’ll be interesting to see when we find something what the next thought process is. We have four billion years before our sun starts making life here a problem, so our species will have to evolve. We haven’t been on the planet a million years – in a star timeframe, that’s nothing. Give it another hundred thousand years, and another and another. What will we look like? Can we go across the galaxy quickly?


We need to go to the moon before we go to Mars. It’s easier and closer – if something bad happens, you can get home rightaway. Mars is a six month trip. In order to go to the next set of levels, you’ll need to colonise the moon, take what you learn then go to Mars, or one of the moons of Jupiter. People who colonise will need to not come back to earth ever. Their bone structure, and their chemical composition will change – our future self is going to look very different indeed.




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