The James Webb Space Telescope is on its way! The mission launched on an Ariane 5 rocket at 7:20 a.m. EST on Saturday, December 25.

Jane Rigby, the operations project scientist for Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told us what it was like to be supporting the launch from the Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore:

Launch day. It’s 7:00am, and I’m at the Mission Operations Center, “the MOC” — mission control to regular folks, for the launch of JWST. I’m wearing a mission patch polo and a headset. We launch in twenty minutes. The mood here is nervous, excited, and ready. I hear laughter in the hallways and see grim eyes over KN95 masks. We know that the future of NASA science is at stake. We know how audaciously hard the task will be. We know how many times we rehearsed. Now we do it for real.

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Here was my Thanksgiving script:
Family: “Where will you be for launch?”
Me: “Baltimore!”
Friends: “It’s launching from Baltimore?”
Me: “No, we’re launching from French Guiana. Mission Control is in Baltimore.”

So much must go right the first day. JWST must deploy its solar array to get power. No solar array, no mission.

LAUNCH. I can hear some shrieking from the VIPs downstairs, but it’s quiet here. We’re waiting to take control of JWST when it separates from the rocket about 30 minutes after launch.

The second stage shuts down and the launch vehicle separates. The call comes out that the attitude control system is working. The solar array should be deploying automatically…. There’s a tense wait… and then the call “Sun is on the array, current is on the array!” Suddenly it’s DEAFENINGLY loud on the voice loops, with clapping and shouts of happiness echoing through the MOC. I look up to see the video feed from the launch vehicle and THERE IT IS, our beautiful observatory with its solar panel all the way out, shining in the sun.

Things keep getting better. We acquire our first ground station, Malindi in Kenya, and the MOC sends our first command to JWST, accompanied by shouts and cheering. The reaction wheels are powered up and take over. We hear “Wheel Sun!” and I write it in all caps in my log. The call comes over the voice loop: “JWST is flying on its own.”

I glance down at the photos I brought for luck: my wife and my kid in front of JWST under construction; and my hero Frank Kameny in his youth, peering through a telescope. I close my eyes and give silent thanks for the entire team. Every piece of this huge, gorgeous observatory was ingeniously designed, custom made, mostly by hand, and torture-chamber tested and re-tested. So many hands cradled this bird. So many brains dreamed up science observations. So many worked so hard — now we see if it works.

—Jane Rigby, operations project scientist for Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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