The James Webb Space Telescope, decades in the making, is designed to travel nearly 1 million miles to reach a very particular spot to take up orbit. For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope is about 340 miles from Earth. Shatner went up about 66 miles. The difference between 340 miles and 1 million miles is roughly comparable to the difference between a leisurely 20-minute stroll and a hike from New York to Los Angeles. Webb’s scheduled launch from French Guiana on Dec. 22 atop a European Space Agency rocket will begin one of the most harrowing and potentially stunning moments in the history of human engineering. Like an $11 billion origami, the 7.2-ton telescope will use advanced motors, firing pins and springs to open itself like a flower. A multilayered sun shield, as big as a tennis court, with each layer paper-thin, must be pulled taut. A rip in the shield could doom the entire mission.
Then the secondary mirror will snap into place, and the highly polished golden panels of the primary mirror – more than 21 feet across – will come together and focus in movements smaller than the width of a human hair. All this will happen as the craft is speeding through the extremely harsh environment of space. The Webb telescope is built for much worse conditions – at the same time. On the sunny side of the sun shield, temperatures will climb as high as 230 degrees. Hot enough to boil water. A few feet away, the mirrors will operate close to absolute zero: some 390 below. Led by NASA, the project is a joint effort of the United States, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The Webb telescope is designed to see light that has been traveling for hundreds of millions of years longer than the light from even the faintest visible stars. It will look billions of years back in time to observe the early formation of molecular hydrogen from a universe void and without form.