Why the obvious cover choice was the right one

In our editing discussion about how to illustrate this annual year-end issue, the contenders for placement on the cover were the James Webb Space Telescope and the Space Launch System rocket. As our deadline approached in November, NASA’s Artemis I moon mission began with the bone-rattling inaugural launch of an SLS rocket. Of course, a flawless launch would be little remembered if the unoccupied Orion capsule didn’t make it around the moon and home safely, and we could not know that outcome before our deadline.

I’m not sure it matters. Even if all went perfectly on Artemis I, launching an expendable rocket and safely returning a capsule to Earth are not unprecedented feats. As exciting as they are, they do not match the significance of flawlessly unfolding the Webb telescope in space through 50 major mechanism deployments.

SLS feels like a baseline capability that a great nation should have: a way to launch people and cargo to deep space without total reliance on companies whose long-term existence and solvency might not prove to be a certainty.

 Webb, by contrast, feels transformative in multiple ways. Suddenly, anything seems technologically doable. Former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin’s challenge to astronomers 25 years ago — “Why such a modest thing?” — is likely to be uttered in entirely new contexts. Maybe the United States can choose to do great things precisely because they are hard.

And now we’re seeing the payoffs. Astronomers are feasting on infrared imagery. Some of their discoveries might astound even non-astronomers, and certainly Webb’s images are already doing that. For the most part, however, I suspect that Webb will gradually add to the specialist’s knowledge about how galaxies and planets formed. We in America are not a scientifically wonky people, it’s safe to say. In 2018, only 46% of us surveyed by the National Science Foundation knew that electrons are smaller than atoms; 56% thought lasers focus sound waves. 

We are, however, a people who think often about creation and our place in it. Ironically, that could be why only 38% of us in 2018 agreed that the “the universe began with a huge explosion.”  

Contemplating our creation — what triggered the huge explosion? — is where Webb shines the brightest for me. Webb can’t answer that question, but it is putting it out there in a fresh way as it delves 98% of the way back in time to the Big Bang.

There is eye candy, and then there is mind candy, and it is sweet.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Why the obvious cover choice was the right one