As far as we know, we are the only beings capable of looking into the night sky and wondering what’s out there. We’re the only ones able to grasp the enormity of the universe around us, and to seek to know its secrets.

That is reason enough to explore space — to do whatever we can to make sense out of its mysteries.

And in doing so we not only learn more about where we came from and how we fit into the story of the cosmos, but we also display the best parts of us.

It took tremendous technical skill, building on the successes and failures of prior space explorations, to create the James Webb Space Telescope and send it successfully to its new home 1 million miles away — equal to 40 times around the Earth’s equator.

But it also took the most human of qualities: cooperation, determination, curiosity, and a never-ending will to know more.

The Webb telescope, designed and built over 25 years for about $10 billion to replace the Hubble-era telescopes, was launched on Christmas Day. It reached its final destination on Jan. 24, settling into a spot between the gravitational pulls of the sun and Earth.


That wasn’t nearly the end of it. The telescope featured dozens of mechanical arms that had to be deployed. There were five layers of foil-thin plastic that stretched out to the size of a tennis court, protection against the sun, whose heat would fry the telescope’s instruments. A 21-foot-wide array of 18 gold-plated mirrors were unfolded to reflect light into the ultrasensitive infrared sensors that produce the scope’s images.

In all, there were 344 of what NASA calls “single point failures,” places where the telescope could fail once it was ready for launch, many of them around new techniques and technologies never used before.

Things could still go wrong now that the telescope is in orbit. But if not, sometime this summer it will begin sending images home. First, it will look at planets beyond our solar system, sized in between Earth and Neptune and unlike anything we know near us.

Over what is hoped to be a 20-year life, the Webb telescope will look deep into space, which because of the distances involved will actually be the far past.

The telescope will pull in light reflected off the very first stars and galaxies formed in the wake of the Big Bang, about 13.7 billion years ago, just 500 million years after everything started.

This isn’t a telescope. It’s a time machine, allowing us to see the universe coming together as it has never been seen before.

It’s also a measure of us — of our innate desire to understand the mysteries of life and the universe, and our incredible and unique ability to come together in pursuit of that knowledge.

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