NASA photographer chronicles decades-long effort constructing James Webb Space Telescope

In the world of science, there are often amazing accomplishments that go unrecognized by the public. However, a new book called Inside the Star Factory: The Creation of the James Webb Space Telescope aims to change that. This book provides a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the telescope, including photographs and diagrams that highlight the science and people behind the project.

Written by science writer Christopher Wanjek, Inside the Star Factory offers a comprehensive overview of the history of the James Webb Space Telescope. From its initial conception to its launch in 2021, the book delves into the design, engineering, and testing of this impressive space observatory. It serves as both a historical account and an illustrated guide, taking readers into the world of scientific discovery at the forefront of human knowledge.

The photographs in the book were taken by Chris Gunn, who has been working on the James Webb Space Telescope project for the past 15 years. Gunn had unparalleled access to the development and launch of the telescope, allowing him to capture over 100 images of the construction process. His images provide a human touch to NASA’s biggest telescope endeavor, showcasing the dedication and hard work of the people involved.

In an interview with Gunn, he discussed his involvement with NASA and the James Webb Space Telescope. He revealed that after working as a photographer on the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, he was asked to join the JWST team. He never imagined being a part of such a long-term project.

When asked about the most challenging aspect of photographing the James Webb Space Telescope, Gunn explained that the ever-changing nature of the project was both exciting and difficult to capture consistently. He learned to pay attention to the environments he was shooting in and incorporate them into his compositions. He also emphasized the importance of subtle lighting and being selective in his shots to maintain the beauty of the telescope’s design.

Gunn shared that there were several favorite moments during his time with the team. These included the arrival of the first mirrors, seeing the optical system deployed inside of NASA’s test chamber, and witnessing the mating of the optical system to the sunshield and main spacecraft bus. Each milestone filled the cleanrooms with a sense of awe and wonder, leaving Gunn with a feeling of witnessing something great being achieved by humanity.

In terms of equipment, Gunn used a variety of cameras and lenses throughout the project. As technology progressed, he transitioned from Nikon cameras to a medium-format Hasselblad-H camera with 50 megapixels. This allowed him to capture higher-resolution images with less distortion. He later acquired a mirrorless Hasselblad, which further enhanced his ability to capture undistorted, wide-perspective shots. Using medium format cameras forced Gunn to slow down and focus on composition.

When asked about his favorite photograph from the series, Gunn mentioned that there were many favorites, all of which can be found in the book. However, if he had to choose one, it would be the image used for the book cover. The photograph shows the deployment of the secondary mirror using the flight motors, with the primary mirror reflecting the secondary mirror. In the reflection, Gunn himself can be seen unintentionally taking a selfie.

Overall, Inside the Star Factory offers an inside look at the making of the James Webb Space Telescope. With its photographs, diagrams, and behind-the-scenes information, the book highlights not only the scientific achievements, but also the people who dedicated their time and effort to this remarkable project.

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