Making a Camera for the James Webb Space Telescope

This interview is part of our latest Special file Women and Leadership , which spotlights the women who are making significant contribut...


This interview is part of our latest Special file Women and Leadership, which spotlights the women who are making significant contributions to the great stories unfolding in the world today. The conversation has been edited and condensed.


Marcia J. Rieke, 70, is the leader of the research group for the Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, on the James Webb Space Telescopea $10 billion effort to explore the farthest reaches of the universe.

As Principal Investigator, you were responsible for designing and building NIRCam, and now it’s up to you to make sure it will work nearly a million miles from Earth. How annoying is that?

Being responsible for an instrument like NIRCam is like a repeated roller coaster ride. There is the climax when you have the joy of seeing things work out as you had hoped. There is a low point, especially in the beginning, when something breaks and the design needs to be changed. And then there’s the wait for the next round, like the launch. Of course, the highlights will be when fantastic data is collected, great papers are written about the findings, and the younger members of the team get great jobs.

How did you feel when the satellite was launched safely? How was it to learn that its mirrors, heat shields and other components unfolded and locked into place without a hitch?

Watching a rocket launch on Christmas morning was quite a new experience. Learning that the launch was perfect in terms of direction, speed and fuel consumption was the icing on the cake. However, the fact that all deployments are going so well after many doubted it could be done vindicated my faith and trust in the fabulous Webb team.

NIRCam has the potential to capture light emitted just after the Big Bang, nearly 14 billion years ago, which is only now reaching our galaxy. you have it now saw some pictures. What did you feel ?

We have the first images and we are super happy. The entire Webb team is delighted with the quality of the first steps of taking images and aligning the telescope.

How did you overcome the technical and operational hurdles when designing and building the NIRCam?

I had a lot of help sketching out the initial design that we rendered with our original proposal. And then Lockheed engineers were very good at finding a way to assemble NIRCam at room temperature, but have it meet all the demanding requirements when it’s cold.

When did the astronomy bug bite you?

As a child, I read astronomy and science fiction books at the public library and was thrilled at the idea of ​​visiting other planets. When I was in college, I worked as a babysitter and saved money to buy myself a telescope.

Is that what brought you to MIT from Midland, Michigan?

When I went to MIT, I thought I would become an astronaut. So I started by specializing in aeronautical engineering. But engineering, at least as described in the freshman course I took, wasn’t that exciting.

So you changed fields and got your doctorate, also at MIT?

I was actually a physics student, but that’s one of the roots of astronomy.

It was in the late 1960s. What was it like to be a woman in your field back then?

My entering class was one of the first where MIT made a big push to get more women accepted. In my class, there were something like 73 women out of 1,000 incoming students. It’s not a large number, but it was a much larger number than had happened before.

Were teachers and other students dismissive or accepting?

Overall, they were happy because the institute was trying to get more women. We were pretty well accepted. The only class at MIT where I was the only woman was a Western Civilization class, and I was sometimes quite annoyed by the professor because he called me to explain the worldview of women. I am a person, I am not all women.

Do you think women bring a different set of perceptions to astronomy?

I’ve felt over the years that different people come to conclusions by following different paths, and that’s one of the reasons it’s good to have diversity.

What advice has been the most helpful in your career?

People need to do something they love to do. Find your passion and go for it.

Nothing else?

In science right now, if you’re applying for time on a telescope or writing a proposal for funding, the competition is really tough. I try to encourage young people not to give up. Keep trying; You will get there.

What would you advise young women today who want to pursue a career like yours?

Almost all research institutions that grant a doctorate have programs to encourage women in STEM; if you are nervous or hesitant, look for places where you can get advice and support. I was a fairly independent character, but I know some people aren’t as confident in their abilities. If you don’t feel confident, find women to talk to. It will make you feel better and keep you going.

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