Review: Inside the Star Factory
by Jeff Foust
|The slight curvature of the mirrors distorts the reflections of the bunny-suited technicians as they scan the golden surface looking for any flaws; their reflections make them look wide-eyed, as if they are comprehending the magnitude of their work.
Inside the Star Factory is two books in one. The first part of the book, by science writer Christopher Wanjek, provides some background about JWST. One chapter offers a history of the telescope’s lengthy development, including the fiscal and technical difficulties it suffered, while another examines the science it was designed to carry out. He also profiles several people involved with JWST, including scientists, engineers, and managers.
The second part of the book features Gunn’s images along with his own captions for them. These images follow JWST’s development for more than a decade (in one from 2010, showing testing of the module that will host the instruments, he writes when shooting it “becoming painfully aware this project had a long way to go.”) Those images show how the various elements of JWST came together over many years, gradually taking shape into its now-familiar final form.
The images make clear the scale and complexity of JWST and the challenges engineers faced building and testing it. Gunn explains in captions how he accompanied workers into vacuum chambers to document testing and, in one case, was suspended from a lift to look down on the mirrors as they went through testing. One photo is not of JWST itself but a cavernous area below a vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center, what Gunn called the “gritty industrial side of space science.”
A couple of the favorite images of the book show technicians inspecting individual mirror segments after they arrived at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The slight curvature of the mirrors distorts the reflections of the bunny-suited technicians as they scan the golden surface looking for any flaws; their reflections make them look wide-eyed, as if they are comprehending the magnitude of their work. “I remember standing in the glow of the gold and realizing that I had never stood next to something so precious,” Gunn writes in the caption of one such photo.
That is, a decade later, the looks on the faces of scientists as they got their first glimpses of the images those mirror segments, and the rest of JWST, could produce. Gunn’s work documenting JWST is now done, but his work documenting space telescopes is not: a recent NASA profile of his work noted he is currently photographing the development of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Roman is smaller and less complex (and less expensive) than JWST, but is designed to produce its own remarkable images—and, Gunn, likely, will provide his own remarkable images of Roman.
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