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A Look Through Time with NASA’s Lead Photographer for the James Webb Space Telescope

In the foreground, the side profile of Webb lead photographer Chris Gunn wearing glasses and a mask in a cleanroom suit stares intently off screen to the left. Directly behind, the slightly blurry, full honeycomb like golden mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is in clear view taking up most of the frame.
This self portrait of Chris Gunn, standing in front of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope from inside the Goddard Space Flight Center cleanroom, was captured November 10, 2016.
Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Nearly two years ago in the early morning hours of Dec. 25, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope successfully took flight from the jungle-encircled ELA-3 launch complex at Europe’s Spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana. Following a successful deployment in space, and the precise alignment of the telescope’s mirrors and instruments, Webb began science operations nearly six months after liftoff. As the two-year anniversary of the launch aboard ESA’s (European Space Agency) Ariane 5 rocket approaches, Webb’s lead photographer Chris Gunn has remastered a selection of his favorite images from his career, including one previously unreleased image. 

The opportunity to be the visual spokesperson for a mission of this magnitude was the experience of a lifetime

Chris GUNN

NASA/GSFC Lead Photographer for Webb Telescope

 

Since the fall of 2009, Gunn has routinely worked through holidays and weekends, and has spent much of these years on the road, ensuring that the Webb telescope’s progress is visually chronicled and shared with the world. As the various parts and components of Webb began to be assembled and tested throughout the country, Gunn and his camera followed along, capturing the historic development of NASA’s premier space telescope. Though Gunn’s images display the complex nature of the telescope aesthetically, these images also serve as critical engineering bookmarks that the team routinely relied on to document that Webb’s construction was sound before launch.   

Following the launch of Webb, Gunn is now chronicling NASA’s next flagship space telescope, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

All images below, credit NASA/Chris Gunn.  

A diverse group of people in white cleanroom suits carefully inspect a single golden faced, hexagonal mirror from the James Webb Space Telescope. Many faces all stare intently, some using flashlights, to examine the mirror surface. Reflected on the surface is the face and intense eye contact from one engineer, and the bright reflection of his flashlight shining directly at the viewer. Behind this engineer, a stainless-steel lens cap used to safely transport the mirror, nearly the size of a human body, rests on scaffolding, still attached by ropes to the crane that lifted it off the mirror moments before. In the background, gray and light blue walls lay behind several other components of Webb scattered around the cleanroom floor. To the right of the frame, a structure made of long overlapping black struts that appear like scaffolding sits on top of a lift table that is meant to safely move the structure up and down.
On Nov. 6, 2012, engineers and technicians inspected one of the first of Webb’s 18 hexagonal mirrors to arrive at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
NASA/Chris Gunn
The covers being removed from the hexagonal gold mirrors of the James Webb Space Telescope. Two people in cleanroom “bunny” suits lay on diving boards over the mirror, which lays face pointed up, very carefully removing the covers one at a time. In this photo 6 covers have been removed, revealing the golden mirrors beneath. These are the 4 center line mirrors and two in the 4 and 5 o’clock positions. The two workers each hold part of another cover as they remove it. The worker on the right is reflected in the mirrors. Each of the black covers has a white sign on it noting which mirror segment it is. Each segment has a unique designation including A, B, or C and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 depending on its prescription and location.
Inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, on the afternoon of April 25, 2016, the James Webb Space Telescope primary mirrors were uncovered in preparation for installation of its scientific instruments.
NASA/Chris Gunn

Traveling alongside Webb as it grew and evolved, and to be able to add my signature to each photograph captured, was of course an honor, but also an immense challenge. With each image, I wanted to express the awe that I felt seeing Webb integrated right before my eyes, knowing that it was destined to shed new light on the mysteries of the cosmos.

CHRIS GUNN

NASA/GSFC Lead Photographer for Webb Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope mirrors upright on a white stand in the NASA Goddard cleanroom. The 3 mirrors on the right “wing” are folding back like a leaf on a drop-leaf table. The telescope has 18 golden hexagonal segments. The secondary mirror support structure, made of three thin black lines, is folded and the secondary mirror sits atop this folded tripod. There are 5 people in white cleanroom suits supervising the folding maneuver. One of them is on a red lift at the back right. There is a wall of HEPA filters behind the telescope.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is shown with one of its two “wings” folded. Each wing holds three of its primary mirror segments. During this operation in the clean room at NASA Goddard, the telescope was also rotated in preparation for the folding back of the other wing. When Webb launched, both wings were stowed in this position, which enabled the mirror to fit into the launch vehicle. This image was captured July 17, 2016.
NASA/Chris Gunn
The silvery James Webb Space Telescope instrument module is enclosed in a metallic gold-colored structure. NASA photographer Desiree Stover stands to the left, holding some equipment and facing the hardware. She is wearing a white cleanroom suit. She and the hardware are inside a round, black chamber, which is inside Goddard’s large thermal vacuum chamber where the instrument is tested at its extremely cold operating temperatures.
Dressed in a clean room suit, NASA photographer Desiree Stover shines a light on the Space Environment Simulator's integration frame inside the thermal vacuum chamber at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. This image was captured Aug. 29, 2013.
NASA/Chris Gunn
Webb’s instrument module is integrated onto the back of the telescope, right behind the mirrors. The telescope is facedown on a white stand, with the golden mirrors facing down. The secondary mirror support structure is folded over the mirrors, with the round back of the secondary mirrors facing the camera. Behind it is a black radiator panel. The instrument module is being lowered by a crane. The 4 science instruments are visible through the module structure. In the background is a wall of HEPA filters that help keep the NASA Goddard cleanroom clean.
On May 19, 2016, inside a massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Webb’s Integrated Science Instrument Module was lowered into the Optical Telescope Element.
NASA/Chris Gunn
The Webb telescope mirrors are shown in the NASA Goddard cleanroom, with a clean tent, which looks like a giant rectangle made of clear plastic tarp, half over the mirrors. A crane is lowering it down. The mirrors are gold hexagons. The three on each side wing are folded back like a drop leaf table. The telescope is being prepped for vibration testing. For testing, it has to be removed from the cleanroom, so the tent will protect it while it is being tested. There are multiple people in white cleanroom suits that cover them from head to toe and protect the cleanroom from hair and skin cells and contaminants on clothes. Two of the people are on a blue lift to the right of the telescope, and one on a red and silver left to the left, inspecting the work. There is a yellow ladder at far left. There are various white support structures. The wall at far right is covered in HEPA filters. The very large cleanroom door is directly behind the telescope.
Taken on Nov. 16, 2016, inside NASA Goddard’s largest clean room Webb’s Optical Telescope Element and Integrated Science Instrument Module – together called “OTIS” – are shrouded with a “clean tent” as the team prepared for Webb’s first vibration testing, which took place just outside the clean room.
NASA/Chris Gunn

To capture Webb in its true beauty, I employed the use of specialized lighting rigs, often setting up lights early before the start of work. Johnson Space Center’s Chamber A was an especially tough subject to shoot once Webb was inside. It required remote lights that had to be adjusted perfectly before I boarded a boom lift to make the photograph from seven stories up. It was all worth it, everyone’s hard work – just look at how well our starship is performing

Chris Gunn

NASA/GSFC Lead Photographer for Webb Telescope

The Webb telescope enters the giant Chamber A thermal vacuum chamber at NASA Johnson. At this point, Webb consists of mirrors and instruments but has not yet been mated with the sunshield or spacecraft bus. Webb is on its back, golden hexagonal mirrors face up. The secondary mirror support structure is extended like a tripod above the primary mirrors. The telescope lies on black and silver support equipment. It is half in the giant mouth of the cavernous test chamber. The chamber is filled with test equipment and people in cleanroom suits. One of them stands on top of a red ladder.
On June 20, 2017, Webb’s Optical Telescope Element and science instruments were loaded into the historic thermal vacuum testing facility known as “Chamber A” at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA/Chris Gunn
Several cleanroom technicians stand and watch as the Webb telescope, in its folded configuration, is being lifted and horizontally tilted towards the right side. When folded, Webb’s purple, metallic pallets surround its hexagonal, gold-coated mirror segments, making a long rectangle shape. The technicians wear blue gloves and white contamination-control suits that have the blue Northrop Grumman logo on the back. This image was taken in the Northrop Grumman cleanroom, which features a blue line running across its bright white walls.
On Sept. 16, 2021, Webb was ready to be shipped to the launch site in French Guiana. Before Webb could be lifted into its shipping container, engineers and technicians at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, performed this first horizontal tilt of the fully assembled observatory.
NASA/Chris Gunn
Image taken in a cleanroom at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Dozens of cleanroom technicians, wearing white contamination-control suits and blue gloves, stand towards the left side of this image. On the right side is the Webb telescope in its folded configuration. Its purple sunshield pallets enclose its hexagonal, gold-colored mirror segments. Other hardware, wires, and equipment are located around the cleanroom, which features bright white walls.
This never-before-seen image shows engineers and technicians disassembling ground hardware after completing one of the final lifts of the Webb observatory, before being placed atop ESA’s (European Space Agency) Ariane 5 rocket in French Guiana. This image was taken Nov. 11, 2021.
NASA/Chris Gunn
Webb’s Ariane 5 rocket launches from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. A glowing, white-yellow stream of gas and fire is streaming from the rocket towards the ground below. The ground is covered with puffy clouds of pink-orange gas. In the background, lit up by the launch, is a building that is emblazoned with dark blue European Space Agency (ESA) and Ariane logos. The sky is a dark blue-gray and largely cloudy.
“Liftoff – from a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.” Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket launched with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope aboard, Dec. 25, 2021, from the ELA-3 Launch Zone of Europe’s Spaceport at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.
NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

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Media Contacts

Thaddeus Cesari Thaddeus.cesari@nasa.gov, Laura Betz - laura.e.betz@nasa.gov, Rob Gutro- rob.gutro@nasa.gov
NASA’s  Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

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