The first breathtaking images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have been arriving this month — and last week we got its inaugural scientific discovery — a galaxy that’s 13.5 billion years old. In these photos, we see the infant light of distant space. We are time traveling to the dawn of existence itself, seeing the universe as it was long before even the earliest life forms were here. Golden, blue, and iridescent hues contrast with an abyss of darkness; the pentagonal points of stars and the swirling spirals of nebulae show us the cosmos in technicolor. Each magnificent frame is brimming with celestial marvels — any of these myriad dots may hold entire unknown civilizations, past, present, and future. There are infinite mysteries to explore.
As I eagerly awaited the first photos from the JWST, I thought about how different this endeavor feels from other technological achievements. We are unabashedly standing in wonder in a way we rarely get to do — a collective human triumph that has been sorely missing from our experience.
The JWST is the largest telescope ever sent into space. A giant mirror that collects light from the cosmos, it was launched from French Guiana in December and unfurled itself like a massive golden honeycomb amid the stars. It traveled nearly a million miles before settling into position on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. In its new home orbit, JWST is in constant communication with its joint international mission team of NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency.
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The JWST was made real by the work of more than 20,000 people over two decades, standing on the shoulders of many who came before. Its deployment had 344 single points of failure — had any one of them failed, it could have ended the entire mission. This technological miracle has ushered in the next frontier of deep space exploration.
Not all of our inventions have lived up to their promise or served a greater humane purpose. Today, some of our technology is threatening to overwhelm us. Digital tools are leveraged by tyrants to expand unprecedented surveillance states. Social media is atomizing us, exacerbating polarization, amplifying the most extreme and vitriolic voices, and spreading hate and disinformation like wildfire as we scroll screens and feeds mired in context collapse. Autonomous weapons systems with the capacity to annihilate, like drone swarms, are on the market. Giant technology companies brandish untold power as quasi-kingdoms without adequate regulation or ethical guardrails.
However, the JWST’s manifestation of human brilliance was not built to be a tool of power, profit, or persuasion for the wealthiest and most powerful. It doesn’t measure our esteem in follower counts. It cannot be utilized to track our movements, and it will not discriminate on the basis of race or sex. It will not skew elections, nor is it designed to sell us something.
The JWST is an international scientific mission with no overt motive other than the reward of wisdom. It only transports humans metaphorically; we are not central to its findings. Its purpose is to enlighten, to enhance our knowledge, to shine a spotlight on the deepest recesses and corners of solar systems, to allow us to study planets and the climates of galaxies unknown to us — not to validate our own greatness, but rather to revel in what is beyond us. To convey to us the vastness of time and space, and, in turn, to impress upon humanity how very small our place is within it. To keep us humble, and in awe.
With a $10 billion price tag, years of delays, and a controversial namesake, the JWST did not come into being unencumbered by struggles or tumult. It’s no panacea. But it still gives a glimpse as to what our technology could be at its finest, a faint outline of what we might be: co-inhabitants of our tiny, pale blue dot; floating through time and space; tethered together on our only home. Imperfect, limited, and flawed, but part of something bigger than ourselves.
Our estrangement from the natural world and each other is our most existential danger. Our planet is our temple — our sacred and only home. To acknowledge the immensity of the universe around us is not just to admire a thing of beauty; this humility is also essential for our species — granting us an understanding of our place and our responsibility to each other and the world around us. The JWST gives me hope that together we can imagine the possibilities and make good on a plan for securing a livable future. It shows me what we are capable of, however short we often fall.
This article was updated on July 27 to delete an incorrect reference to the size of the telescope.
Flynn Coleman is a human rights attorney who has had fellowships at Harvard and Yale and is the author of “A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence is Redefining Who We Are.” Follow her on Twitter @FlynnColeman.