Out of the loop: NASA Goddard in Maryland, and the upcoming James Webb telescope

By Don Gworek

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland is where many spacecraft are designed, built and tested.

This is a full size mock up of the Webb telescope. It’s a very different design, designed to capture infrared light. Light is focused from the 18 hexagonal primary mirrors. The five diamond-shaped layers unfurled below the mirror array protect the telescope instruments from infrared light radiating from the Moon, Earth and Sun. (NASA Photo)

The Webb telescope will also orbit a very long distance away, at a point in space called L-2. It’s one of five points where gravity/centrifugal force from the Earth and Moon are at equilibrium. L-2 is also a very cold location, -200 degrees Celsius/-328 degrees Fahrenheit. (NASA Graphic)

Components of the Webb telescope are currently being tested in the Space Systems Development and Integration Facility (SSDIF) at NASA Goddard. The large black rectangle at center photo is the Spacecraft Bus. In electronics, a bus is where components interconnect.

In this NASA graphic, the Spacecraft Bus is on the bottom, but in orbit the Bus will be facing the Sun.

A representation of the Spacecraft Bus in a model of the telescope.

The actual Spacecraft Bus. Note the array of solar cells, forming the power supply. The area behind the cells will have communications and other equipment.

Another component of the Webb telescope.

These photos are looking into the SSDIF from a lobby window, indicated by the yellow arrow and this cutaway model of the building.

Lobby windows. Note the grid on the side wall in the clean room.

Air enters the clean room through this wall. The clean room has positive pressure, meaning that air entering from the filter forces air out from tiny vent holes in the wall on the opposite side. Positive pressure means also that the only way air can enter the room is through this wall.

Each cell in the grid is a HEPA filter. Each filter has a 50-year lifetime!

To the right is the Ambient Optical Assembly Stand, where the 18 primary mirrors will be assembled together with other telescope components.

A mirror is already in the clean room. This is an engineering model that is also a spare. If the spare is not needed, it is likely to go on display in a museum after the launch. Each of the 18 Webb primary mirrors is 1.3 m or 51 inches across.

A small circular demonstration mirror is on the display in the SSDIF lobby. The mirrors made of lightweight Beryllium, with an incredibly thin reflective Gold surface.

Reverse side of the demonstration mirror. The actual mirrors are likely the same construction.

The mirrors will make 15 stops on their way to the launch on a French Ariane rocket in 2018. Assembly and testing at NASA Goddard is stop #12. (NASA Graphic)

The primary mirrors will be assembled on the stand with the PMSA Installation Fixture, seen here. (NASA Graphic)

The back plane for three of the mirrors. This back plane will eventually be in orbit.

James Webb was NASA’s second administrator, for seven years starting in 1961. In 1965 he began to advocate construction of a telescope in space. His initiative resulted in the Hubble telescope. the James Webb Space Telescope will continue to explore space, as Hubble’s mission concludes. (NASA Graphic)

The special tour of NASA Goddard continues into the lab where thermal blankets are made for U.S. spacecraft.

Some examples of thermal blankets. Thermal insulation is used where heat needs to either be retained or shielded. Note the variety of colors and materials.

Samples of all the materials used.

A free sample from the lab, separated to show some of the layers. This sample has Kapton on top of layers of Polyester Netting and Mylar. The netting keeps the Mylar separated, forming a void blocking transfer of heat between layers.

A relatively new material in thermal insulation is Germanium. Germanium has better thermal properties and a longer lifetime.

Rolls of raw material.

A work area, which has fabric-working tools that are common in the fashion industry. Technicians working here actually do have prior employment in the fashion industry, due to the need to make custom patterns that fit spacecraft perfectly.

For example, this sewing machine is used to join layers together.

A technician cutting a specific length of tape to seal a thermal blanket.

The special tour of NASA Goddard continues from this walkway overlooking additional test facilities.

Pressure, heat, and cold temperature testing of spacecraft components is done in chambers like these. The large blue container cylinder contains the chamber, and here the components enter the chamber horizontally.

To reduce costs the smallest chamber possible is used. Large components are placed into this chamber from overhead crane.

Many components are prepared for testing, and examined after testing, in tented clean rooms.

These clean rooms also have positive pressure. Here, air exits out of gaps in the curtain and vents on the sides.

Note that positive air pressure is forcing the vents open.

This is one of the largest test chambers, and it can also do vibration testing. Spacecraft are subject to intense vibration during a launch.

Capabilities of this test chamber. (NASA Graphic)

An entire spacecraft can be secured to this table.

The table is lifted by this crane.

The crane places the table inside the chamber, which is then capped and testing begins.

The NASA Goddard visitor center for regular guests has several interesting displays.

Overhead is a scale model of Hubble.

Nearby is the spare secondary mirror for Hubble. Yellow arrow points to where the secondary mirror is located.

Remember seeing the spare primary mirror for the Webb telescope earlier in this article? Someday that spare many be on display in a museum too.

Hubble’s full size, as seen in the Smithsonian.

A Delta rocket is on display at the Goddard Visitor Center.

This nearby cut-away shows how a satellite is stowed as the last stage, at the top of the rocket.

The Kennedy Space Center has a similar rocket on display in the Rocket Garden, but no cut-away of the payload.

The Smithsonian also has a cut-away, revealing a sample satellite payload and final stage rocket.

The NASA Goddard visitor center also has a Gemini capsule on display. This capsule was never flown.

Close-up of the heat shield, which was never used for re-entry.

The capsule from the first Gemini mission is on the display in the Smithsonian.

Here the heat shield shows heavy scorching and wear.

It’s not possible for museum visitors to enter any of the three Space Shuttle orbiters. The only way in/out of an orbiter is the crew hatch. However, to give an idea of what the cabin is like, the Smithsonian has this mock up. This mock up is a temporary exhibit, a test of visitor interest and crowd flow.

Ahead is storage, similar to how it is on an orbiter. At right is a tribute to America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride.

Each of the storage units can be opened, revealing a piece of equipment or food items. Some of the units are empty.

Because this is a test exhibit, most of the labels are paper, intended to be temporary.

Another interesting aspect of this exhibit is that it shows what is on the other side of the crew hatch.

Discovery’s actual crew hatch, as seen in a different building of the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian has a Moon lander on display.

Here, you can zoom into the crew hatch and see the cabin floor.

A Moon lander at the Kennedy Space Center’s Apollo/Saturn V Center.

Here, you can zoom in and see portions of the lander equipment.

The Smithsonian also has a remote controlled camera inside its cabin. You can look around the cabin with this camera.

You can touch a Moon rock at the Smithsonian.

You can also touch a Moon rock at the Kennedy Space Center. A fun thing to do is to truthfully tell your friends you were on the moon, and prove it with a photo like this.


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One Comment

  1. The era of the Space Shuttle will be forever engrained in the hearts and minds of everyone who worked on these missions. It was a fun exciting time to work at NASA along with the challenges and tragedies. We will always have Shuttle syndrome!