Engineers at Rochester's Harris Corporation declared victory over a series of brutal tests they engineered on NASA's new Webb Space Telescope.
Engineers at Rochester’s Harris Corporation declared victory over a series of brutal tests they engineered on NASA’s new Webb Space Telescope.
“It’s been an amazing program for the engineers at Harris,” exclaimed Davit Yanatsis, Director of Harris Corporation’s Universe Exploration Area. “And this is the last home stretch.”
For three months, Harris scientists sealed the school-bus sized Webb into a gigantic cryogenic vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and subjected it to the airless conditions and minus 400 degree temperatures it would encounter in space.
Bill Ochs, the leader of the Webb project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center dubbed the tests “an outstanding success.”
Meant to be a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb was planned to park at a stable point in space where its array of hexagonal beryllium mirrors can scan the infrared spectrum into the farthest reaches of space and seek out the oldest light in the universe, possibly offering a glimpse of the birth of the universe itself.
Harris was one of several contractors involved in the Webb’s construction but its personnel took a lead role for the telescope’s months of torture testing to forestall any malfunctions or defects like those which plagued the Hubble after its launch. The Hubble was repaired with an expensive space shuttle mission and spacewalk but, at its intended address, a “Lagrange” point beyond the moon almost 1 million miles from earth, such corrections cannot be part of the plan for Webb. “Because this is not serviceable mission, it’s very important to test the telescope end to end,” said Deputy Optical Test Director Conrad Wells. “I tell you, there are going to be a lot of us biting our nails those days.”
For Harris, the Webb was just the latest in a long history of working with NASA and the Pentagon, dating back decades to when Harris was a part of Kodak.
“The optical, the mechanical brain power that Kodak brought to the film industry,” said Wells, “they brought that same brain power to building satellites.”
While battling the harsh conditions of space in the cryogenic chamber, Harris engineers also found themselves tested by some very Earthly challenges. The Johnson Space center was directly in the path of Hurricane Harvey which struck Houston in August, just as the Webb was in the middle of going through its paces, and deluged the area with 50 inches of rain. “The engineers and instrument builders from Harris in Rochester worked around the clock,” said Yanatsis, “often sleeping at the site where they were testing the telescope to help ensure the testing was uninterrupted through the storm.”
After the testing in Houston, the Webb assembly, known as the “the optical telescope and integrated science instrument module” or OTIS, was scheduled to be transported to the Northrup Grumman Space Park in Redondo Beach California to be integrated into its spacecraft. The mission was scheduled to blast off from French Guiana in South America in the spring of 2019.
By that time, Wells said he expected to be back home in Rochester to watch the launch. “I’ll probably be sitting at home or at work with a bottle of champagne ready to pop it,” he said.