‘It was a very surreal experience’: 26-year-old JSU alum helped launch world’s most powerful telescope

Douglas Williams, 26
Douglas Williams, 26(Northop Grumman)
Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 1:40 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Most of us look into the eyepiece of a telescope to star-gaze, but a Jackson State University alum helped launch the world’s most powerful telescope that can peer back 13.5 billion years.

Yep - long before humans populated the Earth.

His name is Douglas Williams, and he’s only 26 years old.

For the last three years, he’s worked for Northop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company, the prime contractor that developed the telescope.

Not just any telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope has taken one hundred million hours of people’s lives to build JWST, the largest, most complex, and powerful space telescope ever built.

It sees primarily in infrared, enabling it to look back billions of years to the first light after the Big Bang.

The telescope is named after James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA in the 1960s during the Mercury, Gemini, and much of the Apollo programs.

Williams first learned about it in high school.

“It was all over YouTube, and it was mentioned in a few television documentaries. From that moment, I found myself eager to learn more about the advanced capabilities and engineering going into the first space deployable telescope ever to be sent into space.”

During his orientation at Northop Grumman, Williams said his manager casually mentioned that the company was building a telescope. The manager told the eager engineer he could view it on the observation deck open to the public.

“She didn’t mention it was Webb. Out of curiosity, I walked over and opened the door, and, to my surprise, Webb was staring right back at me. I pretty much spent most of my lunches going to the viewing room from then on.”

Eventually, his manager asked if he’d like to work alignments on Webb, and Williams said, “Absolutely!”

He immediately became a part of history with a project that “promises to rewrite our science textbooks.”

Williams’ team played a crucial role in supporting the Webb telescope’s test and on-earth mechanical deployment procedures.

Balancing on a lift, Douglas Williams II moves into position to begin an operation to remove...
Balancing on a lift, Douglas Williams II moves into position to begin an operation to remove Photogrammetry targets from the telescope before it could begin space environmental testing.(Northop Grumman)

“JWST is configured down to the thousandth of an inch. We worked in conjunction with 100-plus other incredible engineers,” he smiled.

He said his team used metrology to keep deployments within the necessary tolerances.

“We monitored Webb daily to minimize internal stresses that tend to arise during earthquakes and deployment processes.”

Williams said his team also assisted in aligning Webb’s high-gain antenna to send and receive signals to and from Earth.

“Being one of the new members on the team, I appreciated getting to learn on such an impactful project.”

Williams said NASA’s Christmas launch of the telescope went so well that experts now suspect it would have enough fuel to be operational well beyond its previously estimated 10-year lifespan.

“It was a very surreal experience,” he added.

Having a role in the launch of this powerful telescope has forever changed the way he sees not only science - but life.

“It would be unfortunate for humanity to discover life on other planets without first learning how to properly treat one another on Earth. We have to show respect and dignity toward others regardless of race, creed, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.”

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