OXFORD — Students and community members waited with bated breath as NASA’s livestreamed reveal of five photos taken with the James Webb Space Telescope began. The lights dimmed. Onscreen, the host described the efforts taken to launch the telescope into space on Dec. 25.
And then … the video buffered a few times. Some attendees scrambled to watch the stream on their phones, others sighed or groaned – they missed some of the explanations behind the photos and the process that carried them back to Earth and onto the screens at JF Webb High School. Despite those technical difficulties, those present saw photos of the far reaches of the universe, of dying stars and clusters of galaxies. Those present witnessed history with silent awe.
The first depicted a distant galaxy cluster as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. Light from those galaxies took billions of years to reach us, according to NASA. The last was a photo of a glittering “landscape,” really the edge of a star-forming region in the nearby Carina Nebula.
“The pictures — they were fascinating. The last one was my favorite. It just looked – it looked very artistic,” said Caleb Henderson, a member of the Astronomy Club at Oxford Housing Authority, which naturally attended the event on Tuesday.
One of its co-sponsors, former NASA test pilot and Granville County school board member Rob Rivers, shared his thoughts.
“It’s just unbelievable, it’s spectacular,” Rivers said. “NASA is an unbelievable agency, and it does amazing work. You know, probably the best bang for the buck of any government agency.”
Rivers, an Oxford resident, has spent most of his career off the ground. Once a naval aviator, he moved on to commercial piloting. Later, he got a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and got hired on as a test pilot at NASA, where he flew for 22 years. Now, besides traveling the country as a contract test pilot, he co-sponsors the Astronomy Club at OHA.
“We’ve been talking about the Webb Space Telescope now for the past several months,” Rivers said. “So, at any rate, it’s nice to be able to share this knowledge with these young children, and I’m just so proud of NASA and proud of our country for doing this.”
In late 2020, Xavier Wortham, who serves OHA as its director, contacted Rivers and floated the idea of using telescopes. After some talks they decided to start the club. They usually meet twice a year, although winter can throw a wrench in that schedule due to school activities during that time. The two men introduce science, technology, engineering and math to the club’s young members to “help them think about a career path” that might include those subjects.
“It’s an opportunity for our children to spend time with a NASA scientist, first of all,” Wortham said. “That’s huge for our town, this area. But also to learn science … learn about galaxies and all things that come with stars, it’s an opportunity.”
“Being from the country,” Wortham continued, “I remember looking up at the stars and just being intrigued about the stars and the moon and the sun, and just trying to have children be more excited about doing the same thing.”
Despite being around 935,000 miles away from the Earth, the James Webb Telescope has a local connection. James F. Webb, the high school’s namesake, had a son named James E. Webb, who was born in what is now Stem in Granville County. He went on to become administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from 1961 to 1968, helping organize the Apollo program that landed astronauts on the moon.
In 2002, one of his successors, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, named the telescope after James E. Webb.
“I think that’s why I really wanted out students here,” said Amy Rice, JF Webb’s former principal and now Granville County Public Schools’ STEAM coordinator.
“As a Granville County Schools employee, and having been a principal here … for me, it’s just like letting our students know, from a rural community, small high schools, small place, that it does not limit what you have the potential to go and do,” Rice said.
JF Webb was one of the “first look” viewing sites, alongside locations across the globe. Rice worked with Shaw University’s Valerie Johnson to organize the event. Tuesday’s event may not be the last. As the telescope continues taking photos and scientists study them, Rice is “quite certain” NASA will contact Granville County Public Schools with more event opportunities.