Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

James Webb Telescope launch complete.

As I write this, the supremely precious, massive, and beautiful, behexagonned James Webb Space Telescope, conceived 25 years ago, is floating out through space on a weeks-long journey to its destination in solar orbit.

Using the power of the Internet, so easy these days to take for granted, I spent the broadcast tweeting occasional updates and taking in the updates of worldwide neighbours, sharing pictures of their vantages and their thoughts. I had been surprised to learn this gigantic and delicate instrument had been moved, rocket and all, from its final sheltered hangar to the launch location on rails, in full vertical position, with careful unhurriedness through the Amazon rainforest during a storm.

Humanity has had its space engineering mishaps, which have been thankful exceptions, but I remarked this launch was actually kind of boring because everything went perfectly. The Ariane 5's main rocket broke away as intended only minutes into the launch, followed by the nose cone, no longer needed to protect the scope's body and mirrors once it had exited Earth's atmospheric limits. 26 minutes after launch, the final "upper stage" thruster broke away. This cylinder, which housed the telescope like a little round nest, also contained a video camera that transmitted the final, stark images of Webb as it drifted on alone.

Speaking of social media, that clockwork spreader-around of ideas, there is plenty I've seen it bear and convey which alludes to the uglier side of the human capacity for intent, though I've never been convinced most people are not well-intentioned, instead engaging with contention because they possess the desire to work problems out. Occasions like this launch highlight our shared capacity for achievement and wonder much more unequivocally. One tweet I scanned simply recognized it as what happens when we embrace science and work together.

The final host of NASA's broadcast this morning suggested the future would think of astronomical history as divided "before Webb" and "after Webb," so significant may its fruits be. I shiver merely to recall that the impressive launch, celebrated in the control room and around the planet, is ultimately significant only for its implications about the entirety of the scientific discovery that now draws near.