The James Webb Space Telescope and a quest that every human being shares

In case of failure, everything can still be at stake, I think, except the decision to build such a telescope in the first case. Building it required the best of people: cooperation and devotion to knowledge, daring and humility, respect for nature and our own ignorance, and the courage to keep picking up the pieces from failure and starting over. And again.

“This is incredible. We’re about 600,000 miles from Earth, and we actually have a telescope,” said Bill Ochs, Webb’s project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center, when the telescope finally unfolded its golden wings earlier this month.

We stagger upward under the weight of our knowledge of our own mortality. In the face of the ultimate abyss, which is destiny, we can find honor and dignity in the fact that we played the cosmic game to win, and tried to know and feel as much as we can in the short centuries we have been awarded.

Once, a long time ago in another life, I happened to be sitting next to Riccardo Giacconi, one of the great captains of Big Science and later to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics, on a plane to a conference we both attended ii San Diego. At the time, he was at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and was looking forward to the launch of his dream project, a satellite – later named the Einstein Observatory – that would record images of X-rays from violent objects as black holes.

Dr. Giacconi, however, had proposed naming his satellite Pequod, after the death row ship Ahab had commanded in pursuit of Moby Dick, to the great amusement and confusion of his colleagues.

So I asked him why he would name his dream creation after a doomed whaler.

Dr. Giacconi replied that he liked the connection between the history of whaling and New England. Then he began an explanation of Dante, of all people. During the poet’s tour of hell in the Inferno section of “The Divine Comedy”, he experiences that Odysseus is consumed by flames, as punishment for his sins, plans and fraud during the Trojan War and the subsequent hike home.

Odysseus tells the story of his life and his travels, how he returned to Ithaca, but then got bored and set off with his men on a journey through the pillars of Hercules into the great unknown western sea. When his crew got nervous and wanted to return, he asked them to tighten up.

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