By Stephen Barr
Monday, May 7, 2007
For Pam Sullivan, it's about the instruments.
She is managing a NASA team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt that is building the camera, spectrograph, computers and other scientific instruments at the heart of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most complex space probe ever attempted.
Sullivan, the integrated science instrument module manager for the telescope, oversees about 250 scientists, engineers, technicians and support staff focused on creating devices that will capture particles of light and relay them back to Earth as radio signals.
To deliver data that astronomers want, the Goddard team has had to come up with 10 inventions that will allow scientists to see how the first stars were formed. One of them is a small door -- a micro-shutter about the width of a human hair -- that opens to let starlight in while blocking the light around it.
The Goddard team's task is complicated by the deep, cold space that will surround the telescope, named in honor of a legendary NASA administrator. The telescope will be stationed 1 million miles from the Earth, where the temperature is minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Nothing has been done at this scale and at these temperatures," Sullivan said.
If all goes as planned, the telescope will start operating about 2013, replacing the Hubble observatory, which floats 300 miles above Earth. By going so much farther into space, the Webb telescope should be able to look back to when the first galaxies formed following the big bang, about 13 billion years ago.
"In terms of public service, this is a huge privilege to do this kind of work," Sullivan said. "The government wants to advance the state of human knowledge, and we get to do it. I really appreciate it."
A model of the telescope, which weighs about 1,300 pounds, will be on display on the Mall this week, along with dozens of other exhibits celebrating Public Service Recognition Week. The Mall event begins Thursday and runs through Saturday, although exhibits sponsored by the Defense Department will stay through Sunday.
The telescope project, overseen by the Goddard space center, involves numerous partners, including the European and Canadian space agencies, and contractors, led by Northrop Grumman, which is sponsoring the model's appearance on the Mall.
Sullivan, who has a degree in astronautical engineering, attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on an ROTC scholarship. She started her government career in the Air Force, stationed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, doing shuttle flight control.
She left the Air Force and came to Goddard in 1991, where she has worked on instruments for weather satellites and the Hubble, which led her to the James Webb project in 2002.
The model being brought to the Mall has helped NASA engineers understand the scale and magnitude of their work, Sullivan said. The model weighs about 1,300 pounds, features a 21.3-foot telescope and a sun shield the size of a tennis court.
Carl Fillichio, a vice president at the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government, the chief sponsor of Public Service Recognition Week, thinks the telescope will be a big hit with visitors to the Mall.
"It is a larger-than-life example of how public servants, like those at NASA, impact our future and our lives," he said. "The people behind it are extraordinary, and I think you will see that on the Mall."Wait, There's More
The model of the NASA telescope is not the only exhibit planned for the Mall this week.
Sponsors predict that the Virtual Army Experience, a computer game rendered with state-of-the-art Army training simulation technology, will draw crowds with its action-packed scenes featuring combat soldiers.
In addition to NASA and the Army, more than 100 federal agencies will set up booths to explain their programs and services. The participants include the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Justice, Labor, Transportation and Veterans Affairs, the Postal Service and Customs and Border Protection.
Naomi C. Earp, chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Col. Casey Wardynski, creator of the Virtual Army Experience, will be the keynote speakers at a kickoff breakfast.
At noon Thursday, at 7th Street NW between Madison Drive and Jefferson Drive on the Mall, Greg Christian, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Washington District, will give the Oath of Allegiance to 28 new citizens from 18 countries.
Corporate sponsors of Public Service Recognition Week include Northrop Grumman, Accenture, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Geico, Lockheed Martin, Visa and Sprint.
Congress also has taken up resolutions to honor government employees for this 23rd annual recognition week. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) introduced the resolutions, which recognize the contributions of federal, state and local government employees.
Stephen Barr's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.