What Three Decades Did for Space Exploration As NASA Worked To Build One New Telescope

We have to get a new phone every two years because it's already outdated. How is it that after 30+ years, the James Webb Telescope is still relevant?

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An artist impression of the James Webb Telescope
Illustration: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

In less than three weeks, NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency will finally launch the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit. And it’s been a long time coming.

The new observatory has been created as a successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope and will be the largest and most powerful space science telescope ever constructed by NASA.

The machine comprises a 21-foot mirror made up of 18 golden plates. This primary mirror reflects infrared rays to a small mirror, which then directs them to an array of four sensors. These include infrared cameras, near-infrared spectrographs and other infrared-sensitive instruments.


All this will help the James Webb Telescope observe parts of space that have never been seen before. It will be able to observe infrared light that could hold clues to the beginning of the universe, and could help locate habitable planets in our galaxy. If it all works out according to plan.

This impressive creation is set to launch into space on December 22. Once at its point of orbit more than 1 million miles away from Earth, it will undergo six months of commissioning before it can actually get to work.


That means that by the time it begins capturing its first images of the cosmos, it will have been more than 30 years since its design process began. And that’s a long time.

In that time, the Earth has travelled more than 19,272,000,000 miles and the population of our planet has grown by 2 billion to more than 7 billion people.


But what about in the world of space travel, what breakthroughs have we witnessed in 33 years of space exploration?

1989, Back Where It All Began

The Space Shuttle Atlantis orbits Earth
Photo: NASA / Handout (Getty Images)

In 1989, one year before NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope, the U.S. space agency was already thinking about its successor. That year, the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA co-hosted a workshop to begin deciding what capabilities a new space telescope needed.

But that wasn’t all NASA was working on in the late 80s. After the disaster of the Challenger explosion in 1986, the space agency was back to running regular flights of the Space Shuttle.


1989 was also the year that the first spacecraft flew past Neptune, the Voyager 2. It also saw the Soviet Union expand its Mir space station by adding a third module to the floating observatory.

Fun fact, 1989 was also the year Lexus and Infiniti launched at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.


1996, The Design Takes Shape

The 21-foot mirror on the James Webb Telescope
Photo: NASA/Chris Gunn

By the mid-90s, the design and development of NASA’s next-gen space telescope was well underway. In 1996, a committee concluded that the satellite should be equipped with everything needed to observe infrared light, and called for the craft to be fitted with a mirror with a diameter of more than four meters across – which is exactly what the James Webb Telescope now has.


Way back then, work was also underway to launch the International Space Station. In fact, the first sections of the station launched into orbit on the 20th November 1998 onboard a Russian Proton Rocket.

Other mid-90s milestones included the first French woman in space, Claudie Haigneré, and the launch of the longest ever Space Shuttle Mission, which clocked in at 17 days, 15 hours, and 53 minutes.


It was also the year that the Nintendo 64 was released.

2002, What’s In A Name?

Astronauts service the Hubble Space Telescope
Photo: NASA / Handout (Getty Images)

In 2002, NASA decided to rename the Next Generation Space Telescope as the James Webb Space Telescope, after the former NASA administrator.

That year, the agency also launched five Space Shuttle missions, including one to service the aging Hubble Space Telescope, which NASA initially thought would only remain in service until 2005.


Also in 2002, Spider-Man was the highest grossing movie at the US box office, and we were all blissfully unaware that we’d soon be inundated with superhero flicks.

2004, Construction Begins

Engineers begin building the James Webb Telescope
Photo: NASA/Desiree Stover

Two years later, NASA began constructing the James Webb Telescope, including the 18 pieces that would make up its golden primary mirror.

This year also marked a turning point in the space race, as space travel was opened up to private individuals for the first time. In 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded manned spacecraft to achieve suborbital flight.


2004 was also the year that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, initially exclusively for college students.

2010, The Reviews Are In

The Space Station orbits earth with a shuttle docked
Photo: Handout / Handout (Getty Images)

More than 20 years after work on the telescope first began, Webb passed a design review to demonstrate that met all its science and engineering needs.

That year also marked the 10-year anniversary of the space station, and it was also the first and only time to date that four women were in space at the same time: Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson and Japan’s Naoko Yamazaki.


2011, the following year, also witnessed the final space shuttle flight.

2018, Together At Last

An engineer stands in front of six of the James Webb Space Telescope's mirrors
Photo: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

For the first time, all elements of the James Webb Telescope came together under one roof. All the parts were brought together in California, following final tests on the telescope’s elements.

With the Space Shuttle now retired, innovation in space flight had, at this point, transitioned to the private sector. SpaceX successfully conducted the maiden flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket. It was also the year Blue Origin initially hoped to send its first passengers to space. Testing was also underway on Virgin Galactic’s ship, VSS Unity.


Back down on terra firma, 2018 was also the year Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive.

2021, Ready To Launch

Four people walk towards the Blue Origin space craft
Photo: Joe Raedle / Staff (Getty Images)

The James Webb Telescope has now been shipped to Kourou, in French Guiana, ahead of its launch into orbit on December 22.

This has also been a big year for firsts in space, as NASA carried out the first powered flight on another planet when its Ingenuity helicopter flew on Mars.


In the land of the super-rich, Blue Origin completed its first manned mission to space with founder Jeff Bezos onboard, Richard Branson became the first billionaire to travel near space, and Elon Musk continued to fly astronauts into orbit with crafts operated by SpaceX.

Apparently, this means space is now for everyone, I think?