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The James Webb telescope project manager says the words 'give up' were never used

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, we got a new view of space, and it was epic - cosmic cliffs of glowing gas, spinning galaxies, dying stars. The James Webb telescope caught those images of ancient history - billions of light-years away - showing what the universe looked like when it was just forming after the Big Bang.

Some 20,000 people worked on the project for almost two decades, and we are joined now by the engineer who's been the project manager since 2011. Bill Ochs, welcome and congratulations. It's been quite a week.

BILL OCHS: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, it's actually been quite an 11 1/2 years, but...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

OCHS: ...That I've been on the project, but, yes, this week topped it all off.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So take us back...

OCHS: It made it all worthwhile.

SHAPIRO: ...To those earliest days in 2011. What did the project back then look like in terms of, like, budget, time frame, ambition?

OCHS: When I came on board, they had just gone through an external review, and, you know, it was basically concluded that they weren't going to make their current launch date, which I think at that time was - I want to say it was 2013. We didn't have enough money. So when I came on board, I was asked to go ahead and put together a re-plan, which was quite challenging because, you know, you're brand new onto something. To re-plan that - a mission of this complexity is a pretty steep learning curve.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

OCHS: At that point, we had had enough issues, and things were just taking longer.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

OCHS: The complexity of this mission and testing it on the ground made us understand we really needed a little bit more time.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Over the history of this project, there have been so many close calls and near disasters. Many astronomers said they never thought it would work. Can you describe the moment that you came closest to despair, that you felt almost like giving up?

OCHS: I - in all honestly, I don't think I ever got to that point of really feeling like, hey, it's never going to work. I did hit my retirement age at one point, and I thought, you know, maybe I should just retire. And then I'm like, no, I got to see this out to the end.

SHAPIRO: What year was that?

OCHS: About three years ago.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

OCHS: But that was it. I mean, I tell folks all the time. The type of words I never heard on this project in the 11 1/2 years that I have been here is give up, failure - never heard those words. It was always, hey, we got an issue. Whether it was a design complexity issue or, you know, in this case, we did have some mistakes that were made - how do we correct this? How do we make sure this doesn't happen again, and how do we move on?

SHAPIRO: What was the moment you finally allowed yourself to exhale, that you finally said, this worked?

OCHS: (Laughter) I would have held my breath for a pretty long time.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

OCHS: Well, you know, it actually came in steps, right? So I really wasn't worried about the launch. The launch vehicle team was outstanding. But those first 2 1/2 weeks of deployment - you know, that's probably the highest anxiety level that we had. I'm a pretty laid-back person. I've done operations before, so I don't - I'm pretty calm throughout the whole thing. But definitely, the anxiety level was up.

SHAPIRO: Why? Just because it might not have deployed in the way it was supposed to?

OCHS: Right. And that's - you know, if you heard, prior to launch, folks talk, we had 344 single-point failures. A single-point failure means if this one thing fails, we could potentially lose the whole mission.

SHAPIRO: Oh (laughter).

OCHS: And a majority of those single-point failures were going to be retired through that first two weeks or so of deployments. So when you think about it - right? - anything in that first two weeks could've maybe taken us out.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

OCHS: When we got through the first two weeks, there was a big sigh of relief when we deployed that final mirror wing - huge sigh of relief. Now you go through a period of checking out the rest of the spacecraft itself, and now we get ready to start aligning the mirrors. But there were 155 motors on the backs of these mirrors to make them function properly for us to do the alignments. Every single one of them worked. Every single one of them survived...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

OCHS: ...The launch environment and all the testing we had done on the ground.

SHAPIRO: Am I correct that, right now, it appears that the telescope is working even better than it was designed to?

OCHS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We're meeting or exceeding requirements across the board, especially with the telescope. That just means that we have more margin before we ever get into trouble over the life of the mission, which will then help extend mission life.

SHAPIRO: So we'll be getting more images longer.

OCHS: Right. Right. I mean, we have fuel now for 20-plus years. So now, it's, hey, is the hardware going to last that long? And it's looking really good.

SHAPIRO: So take us to the moment you saw the first images coming in.

OCHS: So the images that we released on Tuesday I only saw a preview of a couple weeks ago. So the real images were the engineering images that we took during the mirror alignment phase. And if you saw that - the first image that we released that showed that - you know, the perfectly focused star...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

OCHS: ...That was actually a cropped image. But when you looked at the entire image, it was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, OK, that's cool. The star is focused. Let's look at those galaxies in the back. And one of our engineers/scientists started counting. And in that first image, he counted 250-plus galaxies and then made a little photo montage of each of the galaxies. I started carrying this stuff around on my phone. They were like my baby pictures, right?

SHAPIRO: Of course.

OCHS: (Laughter) You know, instead of pictures of my grandson, I'm showing people pictures of galaxies. And the structure that you could see was amazing. And, you know, we're like, wow, this is really cool. And, you know, if you think of Webb - I mean, it's like if we put it in car terms, all right, this thing's a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. Now, we're probably getting close to where we can go into second gear. So at that point, you know, we were barely in first gear, and we're still already seeing this amazing stuff.

SHAPIRO: I know you're a level-headed engineer, but did you get emotional?

OCHS: I got excited.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

OCHS: So if that's part of emotion, yes. Yes. As far as, you know, the teary-eyed kind of stuff? No. I get that - I'm very much a people person. And as the project manager, I feel very close to my team. And one of the things that you deal with at this point in a mission is we're all starting to go our separate ways. And it's sad to say goodbye to folks, so there's always a mixture of emotions there.

SHAPIRO: What's it been like to see the world react?

OCHS: Oh, it's amazing. I mean, it's - from the day we launched, we started getting reaction from folks all over the world of how touched they were by this and how excited they were. I participated in a National Park Service/NASA Dark Sky Festival at Death Valley National Park in February, and myself and one of our scientists gave the keynote address. And afterwards, we're hanging around, and we're talking to folks, and they're asking questions. And we had this one lady come up to us, and she said, hey, I drove three hours to get here only to hear you guys speak. This is such great news in this world full of trouble. And she started crying when she was talking to us.

And then, just today, there was a special on about Webb last night on TV, and one of my communications folks got an email from a rancher in Idaho saying how him and his family were so touched by it. I mean, they even now more appreciate the fact that they're really in a good dark sky area, and they can go out at night and see so many stars. It just gave them a greater appreciation. But again, it was related back to - and with so much trouble in the world, this is just a ray of sunshine.

SHAPIRO: Bill Ochs is project manager of the James Webb Space Telescope for NASA. Thank you. I hope you're off to take a long vacation.

OCHS: Oh, yeah. It's called retirement - in about six weeks.

SHAPIRO: What a way to go out. My goodness. Well earned.

OCHS: Yeah. Well, you know, this is a side thing. I started as a - fresh out of college, on a contract, working on the construction of Hubble. So I'm always amazed that I started on Hubble, and I get to finish with a project as amazing as Webb. It's a...

SHAPIRO: That's a great way to end.

OCHS: Yeah. So...

SHAPIRO: Enjoy your retirement. You've earned it.

OCHS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.