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Ernst Stuhlinger: A Legend of the Space Age

His life story could have been written by a sci-fi novelist

11 min read

One of the guiding lights of space exploration passed away on 25 May. In many aspects, his career reflected the struggle of those who tried to balance the necessities of life on this planet with a desire to travel to the stars.

In an era when the most difficult problems imaginable were jokingly referred to as ”rocket science,” Ernst Stuhlinger launched real rockets into space as Wernher von Braun’s right-hand man. He lived a long and remarkable life, beginning in Germany and ending in the United States. A longtime advocate of interplanetary exploration, he died as word of the landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander circulated in his adopted hometown of Huntsville, Ala. (”Rocket City USA”), where he made most of his breakthrough contributions to space science. He was 94.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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