Parts made by Cullman’s General Dynamics travel a million miles from Alabama

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is named for a former NASA administrator, but you can’t. It is about a million miles from Earth.

Although remote, the world’s most ambitious $10 billion space observatory, which is quickly mapping the deepest voids in space, has a connection to Alabama. In September 2003, after direct competition with Kodak (the division is now known as ITT), General Dynamics Coleman was selected by NASA for the JWST Mirror project. The company will work with other space-age entities, including Ball Aerospace, Northrop Grumman and L3Harris Technologies, in turning science fiction into science fact.

Technicians at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville conducted a series of cryogenic tests on six beryllium mirror sections of the James Webb Space Telescope in the center’s cryogenic X-ray facility. During testing, the mirrors were exposed to temperatures as low as minus 415 degrees Celsius, allowing engineers to measure in extreme detail how the mirror’s shape changes as it cools. Mirrors have been tested before and after being coated with a thin layer of gold. (NASA)

Thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians from 14 countries and 29 US states participated in creating Webb’s wonders. Coleman-made mirror components are mission-critical.

The Space Project’s basic mirror, with a spread of 21.5 feet, consists of 18 hexagonal mirror pieces. Each pistol measures approximately 4.3 feet in diameter. General Dynamics milled all 18 people, along with three spares.

“We are proud to be a part of this program,” said Jeff Calvert, Director of Manufacturing Engineering at General Dynamics. “Delivering a product the way our team delivered it was amazing. I cannot speak highly enough about how well they performed and the hours these guys spent day in and day out, making sure that they hit the numbers.”

Access to numbers ensures precise grinding of surgical specifications. Some parts of the hexagons require machine/computer measurements of what Calvert describes in layman’s terms as “the thickness of eight human hairs stacked on top of each other”.

The mirrors are made of 99% pure beryllium, a gray steel mineral often found in emerald mines. As Calvert noted, beryllium is commonly used in phones, wall sockets, computers, and electronics. Among its attractive properties, such as the ability to obtain a high polish for mirror use, beryllium can withstand extreme temperatures in space, which is a good thing. The side of the space telescope facing the sun will be about 230 degrees. The cold side will be about 370 degrees below zero.

“We did all the machines,” Calvert said. “We received the hexagons, which weigh 475 pounds. The final product weighs less than 46 pounds.” Coleman’s team also worked on other telescope mirrors – secondary, pointing and support structures.

“We completed our product in the 2007 time frame,” he said. “The supporting structures and other optics were shipped in 2009. Once the mirrors were shipped, our contract was complete.” From Coleman, the hexagons were handed over to Ball Avionics and then to Northrop Grumman for polishing before final delivery to NASA. “Take care of our parts,” General Dynamics employees told their colleagues. Calvert said with a smile. “They did.”

A NASA artist posted the James Webb Space Telescope with mirrors. (NASA)

Wonders unfold

After grinding the beryllium, a thin layer of pure gold was applied to each hexagon. According to NASA, gold is very reflective, perfect for bouncing every available proton of light from worlds far away.

But as a byproduct, it’s beautiful. The finished product is an 18-piece glossy gold honeycomb that works as one. Miniature replicas in the form of jewelry can be purchased online.

“This thing had a lot of moving parts,” Calvert said of the biggest project he’s been on in over 30 years with General Dynamics. With a diameter of 21.5 feet, it is the largest mirror ever sent into space.

“You only have one chance to do it right. It is unfit for use. There is no turning back.”

Like mirrors, the observatory was folded and encased in the rocket that carried it into space. Once at the site, the tightly packed observatory/mirror assembly was discarded and gradually unfolded, taking weeks. Unhollow is the approximate mass of a school bus.

But another “disclosure” that was explained in a NASA press release is even more mind boggling: “It (JWST) will reveal the universe, changing the way we think about the night sky and our place in the universe. The telescope allows us to look back to see a period of cosmic history that we haven’t seen. Absolutely. Webb can look into the past because telescopes show us what things were like — not how they are now. He can also explore distant galaxies, far beyond any we’ve seen before.”

The light is collected in the primary lens, then bounces back to the other mirrors and finally travels to the Earth. The observatory’s telescope sees infrared light much more clearly and at a much greater distance than other permitted techniques. According to NASA, it can detect if we are alone in the universe.

“We have a kick-off”

December 25, 2021. It’s Christmas morning in Coleman. But at General Dynamics, all eyes are on events 2,000 miles away. “Leave! LEAVES!” announced a gleeful NASA announcer at approximately 6:15 a.m. Coleman time. His words blast from the megaphone on the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana.

An Ariane 5 rocket ignites and flies into space, with a neatly packed payload folded like a robot from the movie “Transformer.” The James Webb Space Telescope is leaving Earth forever.

The speaker continues, “From the tropical rainforest to the very edge of time, James Webb begins his journey back to the birth of the universe.” And with those words, the most expensive, powerful, and most ambitious machine of all time begins its stellar mission, thanks in large part to Coleman’s staff.

Staring into a starry night, Robert Tidwell, the chief financial officer of General Dynamics, reflects on the project his team has put into space. “Being a part of the program gives us a sense of pride in this field and to see this program come true,” he said.

Calvert agreed. “I was a small part of this team,” he said. General Dynamics’ Coleman Group also provides milling for nuclear reactors, strategic missiles and satellite components. “But to be a part of this, the little part that I have, is a huge honor.”

Fast forward to the morning of late January 2022. Calvert watches the observatory from Coleman. “The mirrors are all folded out now,” he said. “Each of those 18 mirrors is incrementally moved to represent a single reflecting object.”

The gradual introduction took a few months, and then James Webb began sending images back to Earth during his five to ten-year mission. Soon, humanity may discover new galaxies, track unknown planets and predict inhabitants of other worlds.

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.

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