Mission to the Origins of the Universe
An interview with Michael Menzel, lead systems engineer of the James Webb Space Telescope
On Christmas Day in 2021, a rocket lifted off from French Guiana, launching the James Webb Space Telescope on its mission to explore the outer reaches of the universe — peering out to the very first stars and galaxies, formed some 13.6 billion years ago. The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb is the largest and most powerful space telescope in the world, and its deployment is arguably one of the greatest scientific endeavors in history. In July 2022, NASA released the first images from the JWST — the deepest and sharpest infrared images of the distant universe to date. Similar images have been transmitted since, and countless more are expected in the years to come, as astronomers rewrite textbooks to account for new discoveries.
One of the people at the helm of the $10 billion project is Michael Menzel, lead systems engineer of the JWST at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, located outside of Washington, D.C. Menzel has been a pivotal player in the development of the telescope for more than 25 years. Managing a team of about 200 people around the world, he was responsible for ensuring Webb would perform on orbit, approximately 1 million miles from Earth. A husband and father, he resides in Frederick, Maryland, where he joined the Knights of Columbus in 2012.
Last month, Menzel spoke with Columbia editor Alton Pelowski about his career, the goals of the JWST and its discoveries thus far, and how his Catholic faith relates to his scientific work.
COLUMBIA: What led you to have a lead role with the world’s largest space telescope? Was this a career path you always wanted to pursue?
MICHAEL MENZEL: My grandfather got me interested in astronomy when I was 6 years old, and I’ve loved it ever since. I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I went to MIT and got a degree in physics, and then I went to work for what was RCA Astro Space Division. I got my master’s degree from Columbia University while I was working, and one thing led to another.
I became a deputy program manager at Lockheed Martin for the Hubble servicing missions. And when Lockheed wanted to bid on what was called the Next Generation Space Telescope in 1997, they asked me to be their chief systems engineer. We lost the proposal, but the winning company, Northrop Grumman, asked me to work for them. Eventually, I ended up at NASA when the project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center asked me to be his lead systems engineer in 2004. That’s where I’ve been ever since.
The truth is, there are many leads on this job, and many of them have been on it for as long as I have. A lot of us have spent half our careers doing this job. We have all stuck with it because we knew this was a mission worth doing.
COLUMBIA: What are the principal goals of the James Webb Space Telescope — and how do these goals differ from those of Hubble?
MICHAEL MENZEL: It’s meant to be a successor to Hubble, to pick up where Hubble left off. There are four specific goals of the mission. The first is to see the very first stars and galaxies. The Big Bang happened about 13.8 billion years ago, and maybe somewhere between 200 and 400 million years after that, the first stars turned on, which in cosmic time is pretty quick. The second goal is to see how galaxies, these vast cities of stars in space, evolve over cosmic time. The third goal is to see how stars are born in our own Milky Way galaxy. And the fourth goal is to see how solar systems are born and form. All four goals really dictate a telescope that’s six times bigger than Hubble and that can see infrared light.
COLUMBIA: From the engineering to the testing, can you summarize some of the greatest challenges you faced in ensuring that the JWST would be operational?
MICHAEL MENZEL: There were five main challenges, but I’ll describe the three that you’re probably most familiar with. First, the telescope stands about as tall as a three-story building, and the sunshield is about as big as a tennis court. So challenge number one was fitting that into a rocket whose fairing, or nose cone, is only 5 meters in diameter. We had to fold this thing up, and then once it’s on orbit, rebuild the observatory and telescope robotically, unfolding what are 50 of the most complex deployments ever attempted.
The second challenge is that half of the observatory has to operate at temperatures only 55 degrees above absolute zero; it’s cryogenic. Three metric tons of telescope has to cool down to minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit. And to do it, we had to build a big sun shield that’s like a big umbrella. It gets illuminated by about 200,000 watts of solar radiation, and it can only allow .02 watts through. A heat leak could really do us damage. I tell folks that if it were suntan lotion, it would have an SPF of 10 million.
The third big challenge for me was this observatory was not testable on the ground. So, we had to test it in parts and assemble a big mathematical model to predict what its performance would be like on orbit. As engineers, we like to test the as-built device. Well, we couldn’t do that for James Webb.
COLUMBIA: Do you recall any specific moments of accomplishment or relief related to the launch and deployment? After all, unlike Hubble, James Webb wasn’t going to be serviceable if something went wrong.
MICHAEL MENZEL: That’s exactly right. It had to be right the first time, and we were all very aware of that. This was exacerbated by the fact that deploying things in space is always a risky business.
Right after the launch, there were reporters all over the place. They were interviewing me and the program managers — “How do you feel? How do you feel?” They’re looking for that emotional moment, right? Well, we’re all sitting there acting very low key. I said, “Hey, look, it was a good day.” The launch was one thing, but I knew that we were really tempting fate with 50 very complex deployments ahead of us. Half of them were very precise, the ones that deployed and rebuilt the telescope. The ones with the sunshield didn’t have to be as precise, but they were actually harder, because we were dealing with five layers of indeterministic material. Predicting how those floppity layers would act in zero G was nerve-racking.
But we prepared for the worst, and there were only some very minor anomalies. We finished the deployments on Jan. 8, and we were all ecstatic. We were relieved. It was a good moment.
Right now, the telescope is twice as good as it was required to be. That’s in part due to the way we engineered it, and in part due to luck. See, we allowed margin for things that could go wrong, for what we nicknamed “unknown unknowns.” Well, we lucked out, and none of those terrible things happened.
COLUMBIA: What was your reaction to seeing the first images? Did any in particular stand out for you?
MICHAEL MENZEL: Absolutely. There were two. The first was an image of what’s called a deep field — the first images of the galaxies. We saw that about a week before it was released. There were five or six of us, and I turned to one of the project scientists, Eric Smith, and asked, “How long was that exposure?” He told me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I then asked him what the deepest, dimmest thing they saw on that was, and once again, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
When the image was released and my wife saw the same picture, she said, “Mike, it looks like [an image from] Hubble.” And the truth is, it does. But Hubble took 14 days to take that picture. We did it in 12 hours. We achieved the design goal of the telescope. Whatever is out there, whatever’s out there in the early universe, we’re going to see it.
The next big thing was when I saw the rings of Neptune. I was on [with CNN’s] Jake Tapper a couple days after they released that, and he was looking at it, going, “Oh, I’ve seen this before.” I said, “No, you haven’t. You’re thinking that’s Saturn,” and he was. That’s Neptune. Those rings in the visible light are pathetic looking. Look at how beautiful they are on the infrared.
COLUMBIA: How might the JWST contribute to an understanding of the early universe and lead to new discoveries, such as signs of life on other planets?
MICHAEL MENZEL: We don’t know a lot about the first stars and galaxies, but they’re probably emitting a lot of blue light. That short-wave light has been traveling through a universe that has been expanding for over 13 billion years, and by the time that light gets to us, it’s stretched out like a Slinky. You need an infrared telescope to see it, and James Webb is uniquely qualified for this.
The astronomers are coming out with their first papers soon. But they have already told me that these very early galaxies that we’ve seen so far have been much, much bigger than anybody had anticipated. And rather than being made of mostly hydrogen and helium, they have a lot of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen — heavier elements that we didn’t expect to see. So one of the big surprises is that whatever’s going on in the early universe, it’s happening much quicker than we had thought.
During and after the launch, people asked me what my hopes are for this mission. I had three, and I think they’re all coming to fruition. One, I wanted to make sure that we saw the first galaxies in the universe. Second was that Webb would detect the first biomarkers on an exoplanet. Now, nothing has been published yet, and I have less inside information on that one, but I’ve seen enough data to know that we have a really good chance of doing that in the next couple of years. The third thing was that I hoped James Webb would find something that no one expected, that no one even thought to ask the question for — and what I just told you about the first galaxies easily qualifies.
Webb has only just started — we haven’t cranked this sucker up to 11 yet.
“It had to be right the first time, and we were all very aware of that. This was exacerbated by the fact that deploying things in space is always a risky business.”
COLUMBIA: As a professional scientist who is also a practicing Catholic, what is your perspective on the relationship between science and faith? Do you see an intersection between the wonder of creation and religious belief?
MICHAEL MENZEL: Absolutely. First, both religion and science are looking for the truth. It’s the methods that are different. Obviously, faith involves some introspection and a look into spiritual truths. Science looks for truth in the form of reproducible evidence. I see no conflict between the two at all.
Some of my colleagues are agnostics or atheists, and I respect that — they’re intelligent men and women — but I get a kick out of the one or two who will say, “We can prove there is no God.” That’s so laughable it isn’t funny. You absolutely couldn’t prove that.
And every once in a while, I run into the other extreme. Over the course of my career, I’ve run into folks that will take everything in the Bible literally, and God bless them. But they will come on and attack me, saying the universe is 10,000 years old, something like that. I usually listen politely and give the standard answer. But at a NASA event near Wall Street, one guy just kept telling me I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Now, I’ve read the Bible back and forth four or five times, and I finally said, “OK, you take the Bible literally?” “Yeah, I do.” “Ever read the Second Letter of St. Peter, chapter three?” “Yeah.” “A day to God is like 1,000 years, and 1,000 years is like a day to God.” I started doing the math and got the world to billions of years old. He was getting so mad at me, and he finally said, “Well, you can’t take that literally!”
COLUMBIA: What led you to get connected to the Knights of Columbus at your parish, St. John the Evangelist in Frederick?
MICHAEL MENZEL: I’ll tell you the truth. You’re not gonna like it. My wife urged me to join. I was beyond busy. My wife, Cathy, was a very active member at St. Aloysius Parish in Jackson, New Jersey. The Knights there had a women’s auxiliary, and she wanted to be in the women’s auxiliary here. So, she asked me to join, only to find out there wasn’t a women’s auxiliary here. I said, “There, Cat, OK?” But now I’m a Knight. And I think the Knights do great work. But, you know, I have been buried this deep in James Webb for the past 25 years.
COLUMBIA: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers about the James Webb project?
MICHAEL MENZEL: I could share a lot, but one thing that really stands out is how much we’ve affected folks all over the world. It just amazes me. I got an extremely nice letter from a sister in Italy, Sister Theotokos. She’s a nun with a Ph.D., so that catches our attention. She wrote us this beautiful poem, and we got to meet her. She gave a lecture here at Catholic University, and myself and the other leads who are practicing Catholics attended. She was a fan of astronomy, and she said she would introduce me to some sisters over at Catholic University who are also interested in astronomy. It just impressed me how far-reaching this interest was.