Skip to main content

Kathryn Flanagan and the Vision Behind the James Webb Space Telescope

Kathryn Flanagan
Kathryn Flanagan, Ph.D. Photo credit: Space Telescope Science Institute.

On December 25, 2021, people around the world held their breath as an Ariane 5 rocket took off carrying one of the most renowned scientific instruments in human history: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Over a decade of work, collectively done by an estimated 10,000 scientists and experts, hinged on this moment and the next 29 days of deployment that followed. 

The mission was a huge success, bringing JWST to its resting spot a million miles from Earth, unfolded and ready to observe the early universe in all its glory.

For AAAS Fellow Kathryn Flanagan, who served as the JWST Mission Head during the early years of the telescope’s development, this was an emotional and powerful event – and a long one in the making. In 2007, while working as a Principal Research Scientist at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, she received a call encouraging her to apply for the position of Mission Head for JWST. With a background in x-ray instrumentation, she was surprised to be considered for an infrared mission, which observes the universe using radiation at different wavelengths than x-rays. However, she notes that instrumentation experts are often appropriate for the early development stages of a space mission when general knowledge of hardware is helpful.

“I wasn’t responsible for building it, but I was responsible for making sure it’s the most awesome scientific instrument in history. No pressure,” she says with a laugh.

By 2012, she took on even more responsibility when she became the deputy director and eventually interim director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Based in Maryland, STScI serves as the operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST, and future space missions, such as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

Her substantial roles involved leading roughly 650 employees and overseeing multiple missions, and in the early years, coping with the notorious budget cuts that riddled the JWST mission. The job involved making major decisions and taking calculated risks.

Flanagan emphasizes how much personal sacrifice the development of Webb required for those involved, including everyone from administrative assistants, to scientists, to engineers, to their family members waiting for their loved ones to come home to a late supper or forgoing vacation time altogether.

“You put the mission before your own personal needs,” she explains. “You can’t imagine the amount of sacrifice. I knew, when I became deputy director of STScI, deep down in the very bottom of my bones, that every single person in that building would lay themselves down on the railroad track for science.”

A powerful moment struck her when JWST’s giant, gold-plated mirrors were successfully focused.  “I remember being frozen in that moment and thinking, nobody realizes what this really means,” recalls Flanagan. “But what this means is that the future is wonderful.”

She explains that big optical mirrors in astronomy are important for getting the best images, but the size of mirrors used in space telescopes has, until JWST, been limited by their ability to fit into rockets. Through ingenious, precision engineering, the mirrors of Webb were segmented and folded into its deployment fairing, where it successfully unfolded and focused in space – proving such a feat is possible and paving the way for bigger mirrors to be used in future space telescope missions.

After the deployment stage, it was time to put the telescope to the test. “The launch was one thing, but the science rollout was the real test from our perspective, because now JWST has to be the scientific behemoth that it was destined to be,” explains Flanagan.

The telescope certainly delivered. On July 12, 2022, the world was captivated by the release of the first images from Webb, which showed humanity a glimpse of the earliest formed galaxies that had never been seen before. The news impact was enormous, with an impression metric indicating the images were potentially viewed over 120 billion times with our population being only 8 billion, Flanagan notes.

A week later, JWST broke its own record for the “deepest” space image. According to Flanagan, scientists have jumped on the data coming from the telescope, with manuscripts being written in record time and being submitted within 20 seconds of each other. But, she notes these first data are “just a sip from the firehose,” and says she is truly excited for what Webb can offer future generations.

Flanagan retired from STScI in 2020, but her passion for science persists. She has remained a member of AAAS into her retirement because of the value she sees in the organization. “AAAS is about science and advocacy for science at large. And it fits really well with my personal beliefs and my personal vision,” she explains, noting that science advocacy is more important now than ever before in the face of climate change, a pandemic, and a society that is embedded in science.

She emphasizes how advocacy for science is also advocacy for critical thinking, inspiration, and vision. Although this is important across all scientific disciplines, she notes that astronomy has a unique way of engaging the public and bringing people together with shared enthusiasm and vision.

“How often nowadays do you ever have a good story that everybody is moved by?” says Flanagan. “One of my favorite quotes and I kind of live by it now –where there is no vision, the people perish.”