How did the universe come into being? How do galaxies form? NASA’s revolutionary seven-ton James Webb Space Telescope is now peering deep into the universe to solve some of astronomy’s greatest mysteries. And this month, NOVA’s Ultimate Space Telescope follows the ups and downs of this complex mission through the eyes of team members — some of whom have spent decades getting the telescope off the ground. When NASA revealed its first images to the world earlier this month, NOVA was there. Ultimate Space Telescope airs on July 13 on GBH 2.
The $10 billion telescope, known as JWST, pushes the limits of engineering with its massive, gold-covered mirror measuring 21 feet in diameter and tennis court-sized sunshield. Launched in December, it has traveled to its permanent vantage point a million miles from Earth — 3,000 times farther from home than the Hubble Space Telescope.
“JWST will just completely revolutionize our way of seeing the universe,” said project scientist Antonella Nota in the film. “People will be simply blown away because they will not be able to recognize what they see.”
The film was largely complete in late spring, but NOVA is adding new content just hours before broadcast, including some of the very first images released by NASA, along with scientists’ and engineers’ reactions.
Academy Award nominee Terri Randall, writer, producer and director of Ultimate Space Telescope, calls the scale and scope of the infrared telescope “mind-boggling.”
“They had so much trouble building it over so many years, and everyone was so nervous about the launch and deployment,” she said.
“It’s taken far longer than we expected to get it all working,” said Matt Mountain, a telescope scientist featured in the film. “But this is the hardest, most complex telescope humanity has ever built.”
One of the biggest challenges was explaining how the telescope was able to essentially see back in time, said Randall. “That’s such a hard concept. We really worked a lot on how to tell that story in a way that is comprehensible. The nearest galaxies are thousands of light-years away, so we are seeing these galaxies not as they are today but as they were thousands of years ago.”
A long-time space exploration buff, Randall was a painter and fine art photographer in college. Her NOVA portfolio includes Mysteries of Sleep, Dead Sea Scroll Detectives, Looking for Life on Mars and more. “Scientists are so inspiring. With all the chaos we live with on Earth, they are looking toward the stars and trying to answer big questions and explore places that are beyond our imagination. It gives you faith in humanity, when you realize what scientists can explore and the truths they can uncover,” she said.
“Terri has done a beautiful job covering so many of the big space missions for NOVA, from Mars to Saturn, to Pluto and beyond,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “But the JWST mission is by far the most ambitious—and the one with the greatest potential to revolutionize our understanding of the universe.”
Science documentaries are critical, especially these days, Randall said. “There is a lot of skepticism about science. I think it’s so important for people to know that serious scientists are working really hard to answer big questions. Shows like NOVA are critical to standing up for science,” she said.
“We’ve been following the dramatic story for many years, even though the fate of the telescope was often in doubt,” said Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt. “Scientists trust NOVA to get their stories right, and that’s why we are able to bring such an in-depth and candid look at this complicated project.”