“Wow! What’s this?”

PLASMA 5 online article

Bill Ochs is the Project Manager at James Webb Space Telescope in NASA Goddard. With over 30 years of experience in the aerospace industry, Bill has been the recipient of the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, the Space Flight Awareness Honoree Award, various NASA Group Awards, 2010 NASA Honor Award for Outstanding Leadership Medal, and most recently the 2011 Robert H. Goddard Award for Outstanding Leadership. PLASMA CEO Diana caught up with Bill in his office at NASA Goddard. Surrounded by Webb-Telescope miniatures and a miniature ESA Ariane 5 rocket, Bill explained what it takes to lead a team at NASA and updated us on the next launch of the JWST mission.

PLASMA: Do you remember what triggered your interest in space and science growing up? 

Bill Ochs: I grew up through the 60’s and 70’s so I watched folks going to the moon. I think that was probably what ignited my interest. I actually watched Apollo 11 over the weekend, which brought back a lot of memories. They landed on the moon in 1969, which means I was 12 then. Shortly after that I got a telescope, so that kept my interest going. 

PLASMA: How long have you been working here at Goddard? 

Bill Ochs: When I got out of college, I had the opportunity to work for a sub-contractor for the Hubble Space Telescope, and that’s what really got me started into this whole thing. After working for him for 4-5 years I got an offer from NASA Goddard. So, I guess I’ve been a NASA employee since 1990. I was 21 years old when I started on Hubble. I tell people I had more hair, different colored hair, and a different body type. I worked on Hubble for almost 20 years so when I left I had different colored hair, a different body type and I was married with two kids!

PLASMA: You worked on Hubble and now you’re here at JWST. What is your personal motivation to contributing to a better understanding of space? 

Bill Ochs: I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve worked on missions that are both astrophysics and Earth science based. Between the time I left Hubble to the time I came here I managed two Earth science missions. One was SORCE (Solar Radiation Climate Experiment) which was making solar constant measurements of the sun that got fed into climate models. The other was Landsat, which was the grandfather of all the Earth imaging systems. When I was given the “opportunity” (ie. unpaid work) it was nice to go back to my astrophysics roots. The science is so phenomenal and so self-motivating, you don’t really have to get yourself worked up about it. It does that for you.

PLASMA: Since you’ve worked in both, could you tell us about the similarities and differences between Hubble Space Telescope and JWST?

Bill Ochs: Their complexities aren’t the same. When Hubble launched in 1990 it was a very complex mission for its time. But the level of complexity has gone up. Hubble only had a few things it had to deploy when we launched. Here we have 180 different things that have to deploy and work right. So, when we launch JWST in 2021 it will definitely be an even more complex mission.

James Webb Space Telescope pic Chris Gunn


PLASMA: You are the project manager for the JWST mission, what does that mean? What does it entail? 

Bill Ochs: It means I’m the one to blame when things don’t go right! As project manager, you have an overall responsibility for every aspect of the mission. That doesn’t mean I do all the work or that I can take credit for everything that’s going on. But it does mean that I have the responsibility to make sure that folks can do their jobs and that they have the right resources for it. So being project manager is really like being the chief risk manager. As risks come up I’m the one who really has to make the final decision. It’s all about what risks we mitigate, which we accept moving forward, and how we balance those risks against technical achievements vs problems because everything takes time and everything costs money. 

PLASMA: That’s a big responsibility! How do you balance that or keep calm?

Bill Ochs: Well, you don’t always keep totally calm and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s good to let your emotions get involved. But when you have such an outstanding team like we do here at JWST, you can delegate work and have confidence that it will get done correctly.  I really don’t lose a whole lot of sleep at night unless I have something due that I’m on the hook for. Like I said, the technical aspects of it are very complex but when you have the right people involved and you have folks who are this dedicated you know the right decisions are being made to make sure that we will be successful at launch.


James Webb Space Telescope pic Chris Gunn

PLASMA: What are the improvements you’ve made for the JWST compared to the Hubble Space Telescope? 

Bill Ochs: JWST is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble. We have a much larger mirror and therefore more light gathering power. Our detectors are also more advanced and sensitive, so our resolution is up by a factor of 7 or 8. It’s actually a large leap forward from Hubble. I mean, when we launched Hubble and got through the first servicing mission through the 90s it was said that Hubble rewrote all the astronomy books. JWST is going to rewrite them again. 

To give you an idea, JWST is primarily an infra-red telescope (which in itself is also a big difference to Hubble which was mostly visible with a little bit infra-red and a little bit UV), which means we’re going to be looking at heat. This will allow us to look back at the very beginnings of the universe – the birth of stars, the formation of galaxies, and even the formation of the universe itself. When you look at some of the pictures from Hubble, you see all these beautiful colors from all these different gases. But if you could look behind that you would see a lot more stars and stellar nurseries. Infra-red will let us look through all those gases and actually see these stars. So, the observable universe will be extended then – we’ll understand a lot more about our universe with JWST. 

PLASMA: What is a day in the life of being project manager of JWST at Goddard like? 

Mostly I’m in a lot of meetings. An important part of being able to manage a project this big is having a lot of communication. For example, today is Monday. Every Monday at 10am we have a staff meeting with key project folks. We look ahead to the week as well as into other major activities that will be going on. Then, throughout the week we have various meetings to bring us up to speed on status by discussing major ongoing issues and what we’re doing to make progress through those. On top of this, I have to talk to NASA headquarters multiple times a week to make sure we communicate on the ups and down of the project. I’m also on some panels, give a lot of talks, and travel almost every month mostly to LA to visit our observatory contractors and twice a year to Paris for our launch vehicle meetings. 

PLASMA: When is your next launch? 

Bill Ochs: The launch date is March 20th 2021 and I’ll definitely be going. I mean it is an international mission in Europe. The Europeans built two of our scientific instruments: the near infra-red camera (NIRSpec) which was built in Germany, and the mid infra-red instrument (MIRI) which was built in the UK. Then we have our fine guidance sensor (FGS) and near infra-red imager and slit less spectrograph (NIRISS), both provided by the Canadians. We’ve had some technical issues over the last couple of years but we’ve worked through those so it’s very exciting. We’re getting so close!

PLASMA: Where is the project at right now in terms of development and testing?

Bill Ochs: Right now, the telescope is in two pieces, the optical telescope integrated science instrument (OTIS) and the space crypt element (this is the sunshield that holds the electronic box). That piece (the space crypt element) is currently folded up and going through environmental testing. We just finished up the acoustics testing, which simulates the acoustic environment in the launch vehicle. After that we did vibration testing, which simulates the vibration environment you see in the launch vehicle as well. This is actually the most violent of all the tests. We’ve successfully completed all of that and now we are getting ready to start with the thermal vacuum testing. Here, we basically put the space crypt in a chamber, seal it, pump out all the air, and cycle through the temperatures that it will see on orbit. We also did that with the telescope piece down at the Johnson Space Center about 2 years ago. In this case, however, we weren’t cycling the telescope from hot to cold but rather just simulating the cryogenic temperatures that you would see on orbit. The reason for this is that to be an infra-red telescope everything has to be extremely cold. So, we tried to simulate as much of that on the ground.

Bill Ochs: When we finish the thermal vacuum testing we will deploy everything to make sure it survived. Come the fall we will put the two pieces together, fold everything back up, and run it through acoustic and vibrational testing again. Once that is completed, we will deploy everything one more time to make sure it’s all working properly, fold it back up and go to the launch site by ship, since we are too big to fit everything into a plane. 

PLASMA: So it won’t be just 2 years of waiting until launch, you are pretty busy now? 

Bill Ochs: Yeah, I mean the challenges over the next two years are huge. We’ve almost gotten to the point where we’ve done almost everything except putting those two pieces together. But that doesn’t take away from the challenges we have left from this point until we get on the boat, through the Panama Canal and over to the launch site. 

PLASMA: What is the planned duration of the JWST mission?

Bill Ochs: The required time is 5 years, but we have enough fuel for 10 years, maybe even 12-14 years if we manage it properly. We also chose a smart orbit point (the Lagrange point) to optimize fuel, meaning we won’t have to use that much of it to maintain orbit. Actually, most of the fuel will be used for the correction burns going out to the Lagrange point. But if we use those efficiently, we’ll have even more fuel left for operations.

PLASMA: What is your vision for the outcome of this mission in terms of how we see the universe?

Bill Ochs: The mission will help us understand how galaxies, planets, and stars are formed. We will also be able to observe planets and exoplanets already detected by other missions, particularly Earth-like exoplanets. We will look at their chemical composition to see if they have the basic elements for life as we know it. It is possible that life there might not even use the same basic elements we use here and so be completely different. If that’s the case, we won’t be able to detect it. But if they do use even some of the same elements that we do, we should be able to see that. 

I will say though, probably the biggest thing (and it was the same with Hubble) we’ll find is what we don’t know. It’s that thing that you’re going to look at and say “Wow! What’s this?”. The Hubble field images are a wonderful example of this because they just went and said “what would happen if we just pointed here?” and then they saw thousands and thousands of galaxies. I mean, before Hubble not much was even known about black holes. If you ask me, it’s the unknown that’s going to be very exciting. 

PLASMA: Would you say you have been influenced by science fiction? 

Bill Ochs: I did read some science fiction when I was younger but that was over 30 years ago. When you work in science every day, you really don’t want to go and read more about it at night. So, my interests in reading are non-science related. Occasionally I’ll read a science book about the Apollo program or something like that, but I mostly read history and historical novels. Although it’s not science I still get to learn a lot from a totally different subject. 


full article published in PLASMA magazine 5

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