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Earthbound Bobbles
Written July 14, 2022


Those of us who grew up during the space race still love seeing photos from NASA.  We can imagine ourselves walking on the moon with Apollo 17...

... or exploring the rocky deserts of Mars with the Curiosity rover.


And the Hubble Space Telescope has provided other fascinating images of parts of the universe where we'll never be able to walk.

In 1995 engineers began designing the Next Generation Space Telescope.  Orbiting a million miles from earth at the L2 Lagrange point, using infrared light and a mirror six times the area of Hubble's, its pictures would be far better.

I eagerly awaited the promised images — for 27 years!  They've finally begun to appear.  The first was displayed at a White House press conference on Monday, July 11, 2022.  Four more were revealed on Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM, and I was glued to my TV.

It was one of the worst-produced and -directed telecasts I've ever seen.

Oh, it wasn't the telescope's fault.  As promised, its pictures were excellent.  The top one here is part of Webb's view of the Carina Nebula; compare it to Hubble's view below.  Astronomers are excited to discover many more stars and galaxies in the sharper image.  Meanwhile, ordinary folks are excited to see a much prettier picture of this textured stellar nursery, bathed in the glow from hot, massive stars nearby.

We were told that one of the new images would focus on an exoplanet orbiting a distant star, which sounds fantastic.  But we didn't actually see the planet.  The image was a spectrogram revealing the elements in the planet's atmosphere.  Although ordinary folks may not care, such details are of great interest to astrophysicists.

So what was wrong with the telecast?  It resembled the Monday press conference.  I wasn't watching that show, but Dr. PZ Myers described it as “incompetence personified.”

“After 45 minutes of waiting with the most irritating hold music NASA could produce, the screen opened on a group of people with a poorly resolved black square in the background.  You couldn't see much of anything, because most of the screen space was dedicated to making sure you could see the old people talking about it.  Kamala Harris and Joe Biden said some platitudes that mainly amounted to being so proud that the speckled black square in the distance was the product of American ingenuity, while NASA Administrator Bill Nelson talked about how very far away those lights were.  It was soul-deadening stuff that told me nothing about what I was looking at.”

I did tune in on Tuesday morning, when we received better explanations plus close looks at all five images.  To fill a one-hour program, there were also video feeds from at least a dozen viewing parties scattered around the world.  Astronomer Michelle Thaller, on the right below, was a competent host.

However, as a retired TV professional, I couldn't help noticing flaws in the production.  First off, the closed captioner guessed that Ms. Thaller's last name was spelled Fowler.  It kind of sounds like it.

Michelle introduced Katie Haswell at the European Space Agency.  On the big screen was a live feed from Darmstadt, Germany, where we actually saw three people who didn't speak but merely waved awkwardly.

Next Michelle introduced two people in Montreal whom we neither saw nor heard.  Then she said good morning to two more people in Maryland, but there was only one person, smiling.

After that the cues began to work better.  Mostly we saw people silently waving, while Michelle could only giggle in response.

The feed from the viewing party in Milan, Italy, was a frozen view of a janitor next to a screen (right).  Did the party never get started?

Right across from the campus from me,” Michelle reported, “there's also a huge watch party taking place with members of the Webb team.”

The picture cut to a wildly moving studio camera, which whipped back to a closeup of Michelle.

So, hello, all the Webb team,” she continued. Nothing happened for five seconds before we saw another silent group of people, this time applauding themselves.

A lower-third graphic mysteriously appeared on the screen, a line bearing tiny labels.  After 15 seconds it disappeared, whereupon Michelle immediately explained it!  “On the screen below, you can see a timeline showing where we are in the show and what's coming up next.”

An animated bumper led to a map locating Greenbelt, Maryland.

Michelle then talked about Greenbelt while standing beside a guest whose presence she didn't explain for 30 seconds.

Later, our host read from her teleprompter, “I'm going to send it back to our friends at the Canadian Space Agency in Montreal.”   (Of course, those friends had failed to appear earlier.)  “So again: bonjour!”  She stood there for six seconds until the bumper rolled.

Finally we saw a silent computer screen (right).  It froze after five seconds.  So much for Canada.

Apparently NASA had foreseen this glitch; Michelle reappeared to say, “Luckily for us, we have an exoplanet expert right here, just in case that happened.”  The expert was wearing a microphone, but nobody had told the audio guy.  For 20 seconds we heard her fuzzily from other mics in the room until the audio guy found the correct fader.

After some short prerecorded features, the previously-mentioned “two more people in Maryland” finally made an appearance.

The guy on the left didn't get to talk for another six minutes.  First the gal on the right presented four additional recorded bits, one of them overlapping the last half-sentence of its scripted introduction.

She eventually got around to showing us Webb's image of a dying star surrounded by a planetary nebula.

How did this eloquent scientist describe it?  “Woof.  Wow, wow, this, this near-infrared image is — wow, the detail.  Hoo!  Huh-huh.  That — wow.”

Fortunately the guy beside her had a better explanation.

With more time to kill, more viewing parties were acknowledged.  From an ofice in Perth, Australia, there was a still picture that arrived ten seconds late.  We saw a darkened planetarium in Winnipeg, Canada.  There was another planetarium (right) in Dayton, Ohio, where the kids started to exit as soon as the lights came up.  We saw other youngsters leaving in Bangalore, India, followed by more waving audiences at JPL in Pasadena and Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach.

Later, we went back to that watch party across campus for some final thoughts from two administrators.  The video operator was more than a minute late getting the camera's brightness level semi-adjusted.  Fortunately the director was able to substitute a different camera — without a camera operator, which meant that it couldn't zoom in when an audience member was asked to stand.

One more bobble (looking in the wrong direction) and one more self-congratulatory speech, and the hour came to an end.

The images from the space telescope were in fact extraordinary, but the TV show wasn't.  As Dr. Myers remarked, “I've seen better production values from amateurs putting home-produced videos on YouTube.  NASA doesn't get it.  It's a bit embarrassing how bad they are at it.”

In case you didn't know, television production isn't easy.

The following night, the PBS series Nova aired an hour-long documentary, years in the making, about the history of the Webb program.  The final four minutes showed most of what we had learned on Tuesday morning (though not the spectrogram), including enthusiastic comments from some of the same scientists.  As one might expect, it was much more professionally done.

NASA promises more pretty pictures every week or so.



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