Baltimore: Not the center of the universe, but you can see it from here | COMMENTARY

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This 2015 artist's rendering provided by Northrop Grumman via NASA shows the James Webb Space Telescope now operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. On Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, the world’s biggest and most powerful space telescope reached its final destination 1 million miles away, one month after launching on a quest to behold the dawn of the universe. (Northrop Grumman/NASA via AP)

This has been a big week for Baltimore. Not just for misfortune — although given the death of three city firefighters and the rising homicide count, there was certainly plenty of that — but for something of great and lasting consequence, an event in which this city should take considerable pride. And it doesn’t involve any of the professional sports teams. Nor celebrities. Nor police misconduct (or a six-hour series on premium cable television based on that misconduct).

This is the week the world’s biggest, most powerful telescope — an extraordinary piece of technology operated from a command center located in the heart of Baltimore — reached Lagrange Point 2, or “L2.” That’s the area of Earth-Sun-moon gravitational balance nearly 1 million miles away that will soon allow humans to pull back the veil of time and see stars and galaxies formed 13.7 billion years ago. That is practically within spitting distance of the Big Bang and the universe’s very creation. The next step is simply the slow, careful task of aligning the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope so that it can begin providing images in June.


The only question is: Will Baltimore be ready for that highly anticipated moment?

We ask because, quite literally, the eyes of the world in five months will be most assuredly on the Space Telescope Science Institute located on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus. So far, the Webb mission has gone remarkably well. Thanks to lower fuel consumption than projected, the observatory is expected to operate for 20 years — twice what many had expected. The observatory’s 21-feet-across, gold-coated mirror has already become somewhat famous all by itself. Just check out the versions available as earrings, necklaces and pins on various websites, including Etsy.


Yet it seems safe to say that the institute is not exactly a high-profile asset. Even its own leaders recognize they labor somewhat anonymously on the edge of Wyman Park. The disputed Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee Monument, removed from the nearby Wyman Park Dell in 2017, has gotten far more public attention, although, as far as we know, without providing any cutting-edge astronomical insight. As Nancy Levenson, the institute’s deputy director, observed to The Sun’s Christine Condon last month, most people don’t even know that Baltimore has been handling the science for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, let alone both the science and the operations of the Webb.

That needs to change. It’s time Baltimore became known for its intellectual firepower and not just the other kind. It can start with a slogan, perhaps “Baltimore: Not the center of the universe, but you can see it from here” to both brag about the Webb and provide a touch of Charm City’s quirkiness, too. Or maybe just “Home of the James Webb Space Telescope” works, too. Whatever. The gold mirror with all those hexagonal segments should be our calling card. Let every city official from Mayor Brandon Scott on down wear a lapel pin in its image.

Make no mistake, this isn’t about changing the topic from gun violence, it’s about helping reduce it. The more Baltimore succeeds as the gold standard for space exploration, for science and education, for academics and engineering, the more related jobs and opportunities will come this way. And that, in turn, means further economic prosperity and growth. If concentrated poverty breeds despair, substance abuse, crime and gun violence, this kind of success is surely part of the remedy. The astronomers in Homewood may not realize it, but they can play a crucial role in Baltimore’s latest rebirth. They are literally showing us the way.

And so we call on City Hall and the business community, on nonprofit advocacy groups and elected officials to seize the moment and take advantage of this heaven-sent opportunity. From mottos and jewelry to welcome signs and public relations campaigns, let’s be there this summer to brag about Baltimore’s other worldly connection. They call L2 an orbital “sweet spot.” That’s also where Charm City finds itself thanks to its Hopkins connection. If the Webb can help the world discover uncharted galaxies impossibly far away, it can also help earthlings discover the joys of the Mid-Atlantic city where it phones home.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.