OXFORD — Students and community members have been eagerly awaiting the start of NASA’s live broadcast of five photos taken with the James Webb Space Telescope. The lights went out. On screen, the host described efforts to launch the telescope into space on December 25.
And then… the video was buffered multiple times. Some attendees rushed to watch the stream on their phones, others sighed or moaned — they missed some of the explanations behind the photos and the process that brought them back to Earth and onto the screens at JF Webb High School.
Despite these technical difficulties, those present saw pictures of the edges of the universe, dying stars and clusters of galaxies. Those present witnessed history with silent admiration.
The first represents a distant cluster of galaxies as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. The light from these galaxies took billions of years to reach us, according to NASA. The last was a photo of a shimmering “landscape”, actually the edge of a star-forming region in the nearby Carina Nebula.
“The pictures – they were fascinating. The last one was my favorite. It just looked – it looked very artistic,” said Oxford Housing Authority Astronomy Club member Caleb Henderson, who naturally attended the event on Tuesday.
One of his co-sponsors, former NASA test pilot and Granville County school board member Rob Rivers, shared his thoughts.
“It’s just amazing, it’s spectacular,” Rivers said. “NASA is an amazing agency and does amazing work. You know, probably the best value for money of any government agency.
Rivers, an Oxford resident, has spent most of his career off the ground. Once a naval aviator, he transitioned to commercial piloting. Later, he earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and was hired as a test pilot at NASA, where he flew for 22 years. Now, in addition to traveling the country as a contract test pilot, he co-sponsors the OHA Astronomy Club.
“We’ve been talking about the Webb Space Telescope for several months,” Rivers said. “So anyway, it’s nice to be able to share this knowledge with these young kids, and I’m so proud of NASA and proud of our country for doing this.”
In late 2020, Xavier Wortham, who serves the OHA as director, contacted Rivers and pitched the idea of using telescopes. After some discussions, they decided to create the club. They usually meet twice a year, although winter can upset this schedule due to school activities during this time. The pair introduce science, technology, engineering and math to young club members to “help them think about a career path” that could include these subjects.
“It’s an opportunity for our kids to hang out with a NASA scientist, first of all,” Wortham said. “It’s huge for our city, this region. But also to learn science… to learn more about galaxies and all that comes with stars is an opportunity.
“Coming from the countryside,” Wortham continued, “I remember looking at the stars and being intrigued by the stars, the moon and the sun, and just trying to get the kids more excited about the idea of doing the same.”
Although it is about 935,000 miles from Earth, the James Webb Telescope has a local connection. James F. Webb, the high school namesake, had a son named James E. Webb, who was born in what is now Stem in Granville County. He then became administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from 1961 to 1968, helping to organize the Apollo program which landed astronauts on the moon.
In 2002, one of his successors, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, named the telescope after James E. Webb.
“I think that’s why I really wanted students here,” said Amy Rice, former principal of JF Webb and now Granville County Public Schools STEAM Coordinator.
“As an employee of Granville County Schools and having been a principal here…for me, it’s like letting our students know, from a rural community, from small high schools, from a small place, that it doesn’t limit what you have the potential to go and do,” Rice said.
JF Webb was one of the “first look” viewing sites, alongside locations around the world. Rice worked with Valerie Johnson of Shaw University to organize the event. Tuesday’s event may not be the last. As the telescope continues to take pictures and scientists study them, Rice is “completely certain” that NASA will contact Granville County public schools with more event opportunities.