I am a weather and climate scientist who spent 12 years of my career at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center before joining the faculty at the University of Georgia. During that time, I helped develop satellite missions and scientific research in support of understanding Earth’s weather and climate. At times, I would hear statements like, “Why are we spending all of this money on this space stuff?” or “That money could be spent on things here.” This week President Biden and NASA released the first image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and I am in awe of this marvel of science, technology, and humanity. However, I bet some of these same questions or statements have arisen. Here’s why the James Webb Space Telescope matters to me and you.
The official NASA press release writes, “NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail.” I am not fully equipped to discuss all of the spectacular science advances expected, but the NASA website says that JWST will be, “A powerful time machine with infrared vision that will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe….JWST’s unprecedented infrared sensitivity will help astronomers to compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals, helping us to understand how galaxies assemble over billions of years.” JWST will also help scientists understand the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems. It is even anticipated that JWST will explore origins of life, planetary systems, and our solar system.
Ok, those are all of the formal scientific reasons JWST is a big deal, but they do nothing for the person that is saying, “People are struggling here on Earth, why do we spend money on things like this?” At its core, JWST is about research and development. Virtually every aspect of your daily life has been made better by something that probably did not seem important to you at the time. How many of you use GPS navigation to get somewhere today? How many of you have received a COVID-19 vaccination shot? Did you check your App to get today’s weather? Do you ever wonder about a humanity-ending asteroid smashing into Earth? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are currently being helped by research and development that was not directly related to your daily life. NASA technology transfer has benefited our daily lives for over sixty years, and this website provides a great peek into some of those ways.
When I hear such short-sighted questions about missions like JWST, I often wonder if people asked, “Why are we spending all of that money building the Panama Canal when roads need to be fixed in my town?” Local issues are very important, but I find that people often neglect to make big picture connections. The Panama Canal provides easier and likely cheaper access to goods used in our homes everyday. I observe “local bias thinking” in my field too. People will say, “Climate change is about a polar bear and is not happening in their community.” That is so far from the truth. Heat, rainstorms, drought, hurricanes and possibly sea level rise are quite relevant to many communities and some of our research has identified U.S. counties at greatest risk from climate change. In a previous Forbes piece, I made the case for why climate change is a national emergency given its impacts on our water supply, food productivity, public health, energy, and infrastructure. Missions like JWST provide big picture science with downscaled implications.
One of the most important and often overlooked implications is science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Don’t underestimate how the JWST mission will inspire a future generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists. These future scientists or engineers will develop the medicines, computing systems, food and water supply technologies, and unforeseen advances of the future. There is strong evidence that supports the notion that space is a strong gateway topic for kids to get fired up about science.
I have likely overlooked numerous other reasons JWST matters, but these are the ones that came to mind this morning. Thank you NASA for continuing to inspire and explore. Just as explorers headed West in past times, you are headed beyond.