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James Webb Telescope’s path to deep space goes through Panama Canal

NASA logistics feat sets stage for Christmas Day launch of one-of-a-kind spacecraft

The James Webb Telescope that NASA plans to launch on Christmas Day will travel about 1 million miles into orbit, where it will look into deep space in hopes of solving mysteries about the origins of the cosmos. The most expensive, complex space observatory ever built has already taken a 5,800-mile terrestrial trip by truck and vessel, through the Panama Canal, to the launch site on the northeastern coast of South America under some of the most stringent requirements the logistics industry has ever managed.

The James Webb Space Telescope  resting inside the cleanroom at its launch site in French Guiana. (Photo: NASA/Chris Gunn)

In reality, the trip to the European Space Agency’s launch site in Korou, French Guiana, was the final leg of a multiyear journey that involved production steps in several locations, not unlike the way general merchandise or industrial components move through global supply chains.

But when shipping a massive, incredibly sensitive space telescope, there is no comparison to normal freight transportation. Webb is the largest, most powerful space telescope ever built — and cost about $10 billion. 

“You better believe everything was considered” from a safety and preparation standpoint “because we got to make sure we get to the correct destination in space safely,” Joshua Santora, a NASA public affairs officer at Kennedy Space Center, said on the Oct. 29 edition of FreightWaves’ “WHAT THE TRUCK?!?” podcast.

The list of logistics details to check off was long. “There are just thousands of different things that go on behind the scenes: pulling permits, avoiding obstructions, selecting alternate routes … all kinds of nuances,” said Charlie Diaz, Webb’s launch site operations manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in a NASA blog post.

The James Webb Telescope will replace the Hubble Telescope, which has been beaming back amazing images of space for more than 30 years. Once in orbit, it will unfold its delicate, five-layered sunshield until it reaches the size of a tennis court. Webb will then deploy its unique 21.3-foot primary mirror that will detect the faint light of distant stars and galaxies in the early universe.

The telescope was assembled at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, starting in 2013. Four years later, it was shipped to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for cryogenic testing at facilities famously used during the Apollo missions. In 2018, the James Webb Telescope was transported to Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Space Park in Redondo Beach, California, where it underwent rigorous testing to ensure its readiness for operations in the severe space environment, according to news updates on NASA’s website.

After completing testing in August at Space Park, the Webb team spent nearly a month folding — “origami-style” — stowing and preparing the massive observatory for shipment to South America in a massive, specially designed, environmentally controlled “suitcase” known as the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS). The container weighs about 168,000 pounds and is about 18 feet high, 15 feet wide and 110 feet long — about twice the length of a semi-trailer. 

(Source: NASA)

The custom shipping unit was built to withstand extreme or unexpected conditions, including heavy rainfall, and function as a mobile clean room that prevents dirt from compromising the spacecraft. When Webb is on the move, STTARS maintains a low level of contaminants inside the container — no more than 100 airborne particles greater than or equal to 0.5 microns in size. That’s the equivalent of one-hundredth of the width of a human hair.

A contamination control team cleaned the outside and inside of the container before the telescope was loaded. Members carefully inspected each screw, nut and bolt for residual contaminants using ultraviolet light. Next, Webb was installed into STTARS while both were inside the Northrop Grumman clean room. The process ensures cleanliness is sealed in until STTARS was opened inside the receiving clean room at the launch site.

On Sept. 24, a special heavy-haul truck, with a guide tractor in the rear, made the 26-mile trip at night under police escort to the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, where it was loaded into a protected hold on the MN Colibri, a French-flagged cargo ship that has previously transported satellites and spaceflight hardware for the European Space Agency. 

A sophisticated heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system built for STTARS monitored and controlled the humidity and temperature inside the container. Several accompanying trailers, loaded with dozens of pressurized bottles, provided a continuous supply of pristine, manufactured, dry air into the transporter’s interior.

Loading the James Webb Telescope took a few extra steps than for a typical ocean shipment. The container was driven onto a barge. Then a tug boat rotated the barge and aligned it with the MN Colibri’s cargo ramp so the truck could carefully drive it into the hold.

The vessel departed two days later and entered the Panama Canal on Oct. 5.

In mid-October, the MN Colibri arrived at Port de Pariacabo, located on the Kourou River in French Guiana. The James Webb Telescope was carefully trucked several miles to Europe’s Spaceport.

Prior to the road legs of the trip on both ends, Diaz’s team conducted route surveys using satellite imagery to understand all the potential impacts. They noted details down to potholes that needed to be filled or traffic lights that had to be lifted due to STTARS’ height. In case of emergencies, the team also selected “safe havens,” or places along the way where they could safely perform any necessary maintenance on the container.

Due to its sheer size and weight, STTARS traveled at a speed of only 5-10 mph on the road to maintain a smooth ride.

While STTARS has previously transported Webb components to other NASA or partner facilities primarily by air, the team chose to transport Webb by sea to Kourou due to the logistics of landing at the Cayenne Airport in French Guiana. The 40-mile route between the airport and the launch site features seven bridges that STTARS would have been too heavy to cross, and the drive would have taken two days. By comparison, the drive from the Port de Pariacabo to Webb’s launch site is relatively short.

Source: NASA

Logistics planners were also concerned that air travel would involve turbulence and forces experienced during landing, while the sea voyage offered a much smoother ride. The MN Colibri was specifically designed to transport huge rocket parts as well as sensitive payloads to Europe’s Spaceport. On average, the ship cruised at around 15 knots, or 17 mph.

Engineers made sure that no stresses would cause the boat to “rock” past an accepted level and worked with the crew to plan an ocean route that avoided rough waters. 

After Webb arrived at the launch site operated by Arianaespace, it went to a clean room and was removed from its shipping container. Contamination control technicians ensured the observatory was clean and contaminant free. Engineers ran a final set of electrical and functional tests and checked the stowed mechanical configuration to ensure everything was intact following delivery. A trained crew in special hazmat suits spent two weeks loading the spacecraft with propellants it will need to power its rocket thrusters and maintain its orbit. 

Then Webb was finally moved to the nearby vehicle integration building, where it was lifted and mounted on top of the Ariane 5 rocket. 

The rocket will be rolled out to the launch pad this week and is scheduled to blast off between 7:20 and 7:52 a.m. ET on Dec. 25. The launch, which has been delayed for years, was pushed back from Friday because of a forecast for adverse weather conditions.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at ekulisch@freightwaves.com