Former Head of the James Webb Space Telescope Mission Office/JWST Project scientist
Space Telescope Science Institute
Interview Date: March 2004
Studied physics at Princeton University, then received a masters in physics at Columbia University. Obtained a PhD in Physics from Columbia University.
Born in New York City, Peter Stockman spent his childhood on or near Air Force bases. He has been a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force, a project scientist studying x-rays from high-temperature plasmas, and an associate research astronomer at the University of Arizona, among other occupations. At the Space Telescope Science Institute, his work included serving as chief of the Research Support Branch and deputy director of the Institute.
Peter Stockman, the man in charge of the scientists and engineers creating the next orbiting telescope to reveal the wonders of the deepest cosmos to Earth-bound humanity, has a confession to make.
“I'm not proud of this, but on a clear night I can only identify about five constellations,” he said.
Unlike some of his peers, Stockman didn't start off with a childhood obsession for astronomy, peering into the night sky at neighborhood stars.
He found his calling in college, where he studied physics. His leap into the astronomy field found him staring far into space through powerful telescopes, studying supernovae remnants and quasars. “If you're coming at it from a physics point of view, you're never looking at objects with the naked eye — you're looking at far-distant objects.”
It was, in a sense, much-needed practice for his current role. Today Stockman is still looking into the distance: planning, organizing, monitoring as the James Webb Space Telescope slowly evolves from a rough outline of an idea to a concrete, working telescope that will take its place 940,000 miles (1.5 million km) from Earth.
In 1994, NASA put out a call for new ideas for missions. Stockman, then deputy director of Hubble's Space Telescope Science Institute, proposed a telescope that would operate far out in space, at extremely cold temperatures that would allow it to see distant objects in infrared wavelengths. Infrared light, or heat radiation, is given off by objects at normal temperatures. Because it's so pervasive, it drowns out the faint infrared emissions of far distant objects, just as the glare of a sunny day makes it difficult to see a flashlight beam or even the brightest nearby stars.
NASA was interested. Stockman resigned his deputy director position and started to work almost entirely on plans for the telescope that would become JWST. The project started small: the entire Institute program consisted of Stockman, an engineer, and a student.
The three worked together with another small team at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and the project grew swiftly. “We had to quickly create volunteer science teams of people whose only reward was the fun of creating something,” he recalled.
Stockman has been watching JWST develop ever since. Although the plans for the telescope are vastly different now than they were in that first 1994 proposal, the basic concept of a cold, infrared telescope floating in distant space remains the same.
As the mission office head, Stockman helps plan and oversee the work done at the Institute to prepare for JWST operations; monitors the progress of the various teams — instrument scientists, for example, or engineers designing and developing software; and keeps an eye on the finances. As a member of the JWST Science Working Group, he participates in discussions of the project's science goals — what it hopes to accomplish — and keeps the astronomy community informed about the telescope's progress.
The telescope in its early stages is somewhat fluid. The science goals, for instance, can shift and change based on the capabilities and discoveries of other observatories, as well as the make-up of the teams working on the JWST design. Now that the teams are settling in, the science goals are solidifying as the design emerges and it becomes clear what the telescope can and can't do.
One of Stockman's personal hopes for the telescope is starting to look dim. “The thing I've always wanted it to find — which looks (unlikely) at this point — I wanted it to look at the very first big stars, and very first big star clusters,” he said.
But scientists' understanding of the universe has grown, and with that broader comprehension comes the realization that that those earliest stars may still be out of reach of this particular telescope. “It's at the very limit of the telescope's capabilities,” Stockman said. “It's still a goal, but it's really going to be a breakthrough if it can see them.”
But those observations are still far in the distant future, and some successes are more immediate. “Because it has taken so long, there's no one great moment,” he said. “But I get enormous satisfaction — even though I have nothing to do with it at this point — seeing ideas go from design to hardware.
“A thing is built, and it works the way it's supposed to, and it never would have been built if not for the mission. That's when you realize the power of the mission.”
Those technological accomplishments have a theoretical counterpart. Stockman revels in the ideas scientists have for using the telescope. They give a taste of the excitement of JWST's actual launch, an event Stockman says is still too far off for him to even imagine. “When they're really important things, you think, ‘Wow. That's great. That's wonderful,’” he said. “That's the best way for me to imagine what it'll be like when it launches.”
In 1995, during JWST's beginnings, Stockman contacted a number of theorists to ask what they could do with a telescope like JWST. Those questions gave rise to a wealth of ideas and proposals, and an entire field of theoretical astronomy now deals with the earliest star formation and how to observe it. “It's like the theoretical side of seeing the mirrors come off the line,” Stockman said.
Stockman's role has often been to toss out the initial idea, and let people run with it. As such, he's quick to place credit with the people who take the concepts and develop them. “It's kind of like watching your children grow up,” he said, noting that parents ultimately have little control over that growth beyond providing support.
But that makes it no less exciting. “Very quickly, all these things have their own life,” Stockman said. “You just have to get people interested and ‘BOOM!’ — they explode. It's fun being one of the sparks that set it off.”
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