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James Webb telescope project manager, a Columbia resident, plans for NASA launch

Bill Ochs, of Columbia, is the project manager on the James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary orbiting observatory that is being prepared to launch in 2021.
Bill Ochs, of Columbia, is the project manager on the James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary orbiting observatory that is being prepared to launch in 2021.(Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Bill Ochs still remembers the Sunday evening he spent at his grandmother’s house for dinner in 1969. It’s when he watched Apollo 11 land on the moon.

By the time he got back to his family’s New York home, he watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps onto the moon’s grayish surface, going where no man had ever gone before.

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He was fascinated.

“That’s still on my mind,” said Ochs, 62.

By sixth or seventh grade, Ochs got a telescope. He kept track of the following Apollo missions, checking in to see where they were on the moon before he’d stare out of the glass of his scope to examine the moon himself. Seeing the Eagle land had sparked something in him.

And though he’s not physically headed to space like Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins did 50 years ago, Ochs is now in charge of a telescope that’s also expected to make strides in our understanding of the universe.

With more than 30 years of experience in the aerospace field, Ochs, of Columbia, is the project manager of the James Webb Space Telescope, an observatory and infrared telescope that will be able to examine the universe’s earliest stars and galaxies. After delays, it’s expected to launch in March 2021.

Before he advanced to his current role, Ochs spent almost 20 years working on the Hubble Space Telescope, which the JWST is set to succeed. He was 21 when he first got involved with Hubble through his job with Bendix Guidance Systems of New Jersey that he got after he graduated college.

The Webb telescope stands out from the Hubble — for one, it’ll orbit the sun, not Earth. It’s also expected to have a primary mirror over six times larger and 100 times more powerful than Hubble’s, collecting more light and looking deeper into space than Hubble.

Ochs stands at the helm of the mission, in charge of everything from bringing hardware together, overseeing all of the contractors involved, interfacing with the community and managing commissioning, the six-month period after launch.

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Since the telescope is so large, it has to be folded up to fit in the Ariane 5 rocket for launch, and it later unfurls in space. So, for about two-and-a-half weeks after launch, it’ll undergo about 180 deployments and spread out to full form, Ochs said.

“That’ll be a high-anxiety period,” Ochs said. “Not that we’re done at that point, there’s other things that are going on. But at that point, the types of things we’re dealing with are a little less stressful.”

Mike Menzel, the mission systems engineer, said Ochs is a “great project manager.”

“It’s very hard to juggle technicals, costs and schedule on a job like this — a job that’s never been done before,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of jobs over the years, and when we build satellites that are similar to ones that we’ve already built, you can estimate cost and schedule better because you’ve built it, you know what the problems are. But for a first-of-its-kind, never before built observatory — that’s a tough job.”

There’s been no other mission that Ochs knows of that have required the number of deployments the Webb will have, he said.

“You know, people know it’s hard,” Ochs said. “But this is really hard.”

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He’s excited for the first images to come out, and for the sorts of achievements they can’t really anticipate to discover ahead of time.

“I think what folks have said with Hubble was the same thing — it’s not what we expect to find," Ochs said. "It’s all the unexpected things that we will probably find that will tend to rewrite the astronomy books again, just like Hubble rewrote them, and continues to rewrite them now.”

Day to day, Ochs spends “a lot of time” traveling — at least two weeks of the month — to places such as Los Angeles, where observatory contractor Northrop Grumman has a facility. Since the project is an international partnership with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, he’s also traveled to Europe. Starting next year, he’ll head to South America to the telescope’s launch site in French Guiana.

Ochs hasn’t been to French Guiana before, and still has “to go get [his] shots," he said with a laugh.

The telescope faces engineering challenges, such as the need to keep it just a few degrees above absolute zero. It has to be extremely cold to function properly, since it’s an infrared telescope sensitive to light and heat.

Webb’s infrared capabilities allow the telescope to improve upon what Hubble could offer; Hubble has some infrared capability, but Webb will primarily use infrared. Infrared wavelengths — those beyond the visible spectrum — allow the astronomical community to examine the formation of the first stars and galaxies.

The telescope was initially scheduled to launch in the 2000s and, after a delay in 2018, it’s now expected to launch in March 2021. The project carries an estimate price tag of more than $9 billion.

Given the experiences Ochs had over the course of his career — running operations for the first two Hubble service missions, managing two earth science missions and now being in charge of James Webb — his role carries a certain significance with him.

He’ll get to retire — and travel, but for fun this time — having managed a telescope optimized to see infrared light that’ll look deeper into space than past technology has been able to, expanding upon the work he’s devoted his career to.

“I love project management, I love managing missions, I really don’t want to go up any higher,” he said. “And if you want to manage this, it’s like, ‘OK, what am I going to manage next that I can actually see the end of?’ Because missions like JWST and Hubble, they’re 20-year missions.”

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