Back Webb Team Profile: Pam Sullivan
Pam Sullivan

Former Manager of the Integrated Science Instrument Module

Interview Date: August 2006


Bachelor's degree in astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Pam Sullivan was born in Augusta, Ga. Her father was an Army major, and the family lived in 10 different states and Spain as they followed him in his work. Sullivan joined the Air Force and spent five years as an officer, training at one point as a space shuttle controller at Johnson Space Center. She left the Air Force in 1991 and went to work at Goddard Space Flight Center on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, a weather satellite program. She became manager for the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys before moving to the JWST project in 2002.

Pam Sullivan was 5 years old, and her family had gathered at a big reunion in Albany, NY. In the afternoon, Sullivan and her parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts gathered around the massive, wood-framed television set and watched intently.

Neill Armstrong was about to set foot on the Moon, and Sullivan was about to discover what she wanted to do with her life.

“It just seemed really neat,” she recalled. “There were a lot of grownups watching the TV and they all seemed to think it was really important.”

Since then, Sullivan has wanted to work with the space program. Her initial interest was manned spaceflight, but she soon learned there were other, possibly even more intriguing aspects to the program.

Manned spaceflight needs to be extremely conservative, she said, because of all the safety issues involved.

Unmanned projects have more room for innovation and creativity. And they fed the childhood goal. “Exploring with a telescope is almost as good as exploring with people.”

As manager for the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) Sullivan is responsible for managing the four instruments aboard JWST. She directly oversees the instrument work being done in the US, and is the main contact for the international partners who are contributing to the instruments. Sullivan is responsible for monitoring the people assigned to perform tasks, negotiating contracts and agreements, and keeping an eye on schedules and budgets. She describes her job as “Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people.”

ISIM will house the science instruments, and control their environment to keep them functioning and protected. “The instruments are really what it's all about,” Sullivan said. “They're the heart of the observatory, but they can't operate themselves.”

The real excitement about the project has started to kick in, Sullivan said. The years spent writing documents about requirements for the telescope are paying off now, as the building phase begins.

The project uses 10 different technologies that are considered either new or advanced, Sullivan said. These state-of-the-art technologies must go through an extensive testing period to prove they will work aboard JWST. "We're really doing a lot of stuff that's never been done."

There are two types of tests: performance, or how well the technology performs its intended function; and environmental, which proves the technology will stand up to the conditions in orbit.

Environmental tests must show the technology can withstand a vibration test that simulates launch conditions, a radiation test that bombards it with alpha and gamma particles, and a thermal vacuum chamber that simulates the vacuum and temperatures of space.

“The first time you produce anything, it'll break,” Sullivan said. “It's a question of getting ahead of the learning curve.”

And that's been happening. Of those 10 technologies, four have already passed the testing. The other six will be tested by the end of the year. Only one of the technologies unexpectedly failed to survive its final testing.

Among the innovative new technologies are methods to deal with JWST's size. JWST is the first mission that's actually larger than the rocket it's being launched upon. The mirror and sunshield will fold up for launch and unfurl themselves once the telescope has reached position.

Other unique technologies center around how JWST is cooled — as an infrared observatory, it must be kept extraordinarily cold in order for its instruments to detect infrared rays, perceived by humans as heat — and its detectors. The new detectors are already being installed in ground-based observatories, Sullivan said. “It's like going from a 486 to a Pentium — people do it as soon as they can.”

So in addition to breaking ground in science, JWST is blazing a way to technologies that Sullivan expects to be snapped up by current and future observatories as soon as they've proven worthy. “Other missions will build on us after this,” she said.

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