Rebecca Stevenson, 11, of Montgomery Village uses to different types of lenses to see what's happening inside a telescope at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. It's all part of Goddard’s Family Science Night. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

In about six years, NASA will launch into space a telescope so powerful that scientists hope to see back in time to the first light of the universe. Just how is that possible? To understand, you’ll need to learn about how telescopes work. And instead of cracking open a book or searching online, how about getting a lesson from scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center who work on the telescope?

That’s just what about a dozen families did recently at Goddard’s Family Night, a program for middle-schoolers and their families once a month during the school year and occasionally during the summer.

Mary Stevenson and daughter Rebecca, 11, of Montgomery Village have been coming to the sessions at the Greenbelt facility for about a year.

Rebecca, who is home-schooled, said she was happy to see several other girls at the program.

Science fans, from left, Ryan Dillman, 13, Liam Clem, 13, and Rashaun Williams, 11, test the telescopes they just made at Goddard Space Flight Center. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“Most of my friends aren’t interested in astronomy,” she said, while examining two lenses. Rebecca said she likes science and is hoping for a career in ornithology (studying birds).

The next-generation telescope

At Family Night, future scientists and engineers can talk to professionals about their careers and topics such as the lunar reconnaissance orbiter or the ability of other planets to support life.

“You’re meeting people who actually are doing the stuff,” said 13-year-old Cameron Moye, a would-be astrophysicist. Cameron traveled an hour to Goddard with parents George and Debra from their home in Graysonville, Maryland. They rarely miss a program.

“We want to foster the love and excitement for science,” said Catherine Kruchten, who organizes the events.

The team working on NASA’s next great telescope — the James Webb Space Telescope — offered to lead Family Night last month. Joe Howard, who is James Webb’s lead optical designer, talked about how the telescope is different from NASA’s current space telescope, the Hubble. (James Webb is bigger, has one additional mirror to collect light, will orbit farther from Earth and will observe infrared light instead of ultraviolet light.)

The ability to see infrared light allows James Webb to look further into the past and possibly answer questions about how galaxies were assembled and how black holes were created, Howard said.

Hands-on fun

After a few questions from the crowd of about 50 people, it was time for hands-on learning about telescopes that use lenses instead of mirrors.

Anjelique Barnes, a 13-year-old from Glenn Dale, joked with parents Minette and Gerald Barnes as they each assembled a refracting telescope out of cardboard tubes, foam and glass lenses. Some of the directions were confusing to kids and parents alike.

“I felt like I was learning alongside my parents,” Anjelique said later. “It was so much fun.”

But it was the last part of the evening that Anjelique liked most. The group headed outside, and participants were able to peer at the moon and Saturn through several telescopes set up by members of two local astronomy clubs.

“I’d never seen Saturn before,” Anjelique said. “It actually did have rings. So that was amazing.”

The next Family Night, on August 29, will focus on the Mars Science Laboratory and the newly landed rover Curiosity. Kruchten said that by then, Goddard should have data from Mars that could lead to an interesting discussion.

Rebecca said she plans to attend and hopes to get an answer to something she has been wondering.

“I’m just really interested to see if there was life on Mars.”

Christina Barron

If you go

What: Mars Science Lab at Family Night

Where: Goddard Space Flight Center’s Visitor Center, 8800 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt

When: August 29 from 6 to 8 p.m. (After this, programs will resume October 4 and continue on first Wednesday of each month.)

How much: It’s free, but reservations are required.

To sign up: Your parents can call 301-286-0251 or visit The program is meant for kids ages 10 to 14, but younger siblings who are at least 8 also may attend.

Other opportunities: Families with younger children can participate in the Sunday Experiment or in after-school programs Engineering Rules! and I’m an Engineer. Goddard also hosts monthly model rocket launches.