The Ancient Technology Behind (Like, Literally Behind) The James Webb Space Telescope
What NASA has in common with Stephen King's “It” and “The X-Men.”
Like all of you, I marveled at the recent photos of our universe taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. At a cost of around $10 billion, it is the pinnacle of technology and precision. It has sent back some breathtaking images, like this one:
So you might imagine that everything at NASA is as shiny and new, at least where the JWST is involved. But it’s not so.
Look at this photo. It was taken in January, 2017 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and shows the JWST being lowered onto a “shake table” for vibration testing.
Approximately one year later, I stood in that very room on a spot you can’t see in this photo because it’s behind the JWST.
Sadly, the telescope wasn’t there when I visited. It had been moved to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston for its next round of testing. But I got this lovely photo of the empty space where the telescope had been:
So, okay. Not much to see there. An absence of a giant space telescope isn’t as exciting as the telescope itself. So I looked around to see what else I might find.
And that’s when I turned around and saw this:
A sad old CRT television. How long had it been there? Why hasn’t it been replaced by a modern flatscreen TV? Does it still even have a function or is it just that nobody has bothered to take it down? I had to take a closer look.
This is an old Zenith television set, a 19-inch model sold in the late 80s. I found a heartfelt tribute to this model on a Canadian military history website of all places, written by a guy who purchased his in 1989.
Although I did buy a companion TV for you in 2000, a 27" TV that became my primary TV, you were still important to me. When my daughter was born, you became the TV on which I played her children’s movies and the many Treehouse shows that captivated her eyes. My daughter and I enjoyed many hours of watching things like Scamp’s Adventure, Pooh’s Grand Adventure, Tweety Bird and all the great Sesame Street Muppets like Elmo, Super Grover and Cookie Monster, through your flickering glow.
I enjoyed all the time that we spent together and dreaded the thought that one day we would have to say goodbye. As I said, you weren’t high technology and I did curse the fact that I had to pay $650 for you, a high price for even a small TV such as you back in 1989, but until recently, you picture was clear and you sound was good. However, finally age caught up with you.
Excuse me, I have something in my eye.
Perhaps fittingly, this TV set is a “Space Command” model. That’s the name Zenith gave to the very first wireless remote control back in 1956. It was a mechanical device that made clicking sounds at different frequencies depending on which button was pressed, and the TV would listen for those sounds and change the volume or channel as needed. (That’s why some people still call the remote control “the clicker.”)
Presumably, the 1989 Space Command TV used a more modern infrared remote. (I wonder if anyone at NASA even knows where the remote for that TV is.) Anyway, I like to think that whoever was in charge of buying the TV set at NASA chose this one specifically because it says “Space Command” on it.
Below the TV set, I noticed a couple pieces of paper taped to the wall. It’s some sort of memorandum about the overhead crane:
But look at the date! November 13, 1990! That paper has been hanging there for more than 30 years! Did they slide it behind those pipes, or did the pipes get installed in front of the memo?
Speaking of cranes, there’s also this beautiful aging OSHA-required poster about overhead crane hand signals.
At least this one doesn’t predate the world wide web, as you can tell by the notice on the bottom about the Crane Institute website where you can still get this same poster for $14.95.
All of this reminds me of an interview I once did with Claude Paré, the Production Designer on movies like Stephen King’s It and a ton of other movies you’ve seen. We were talking about how he recreated the 1980s in a modern film and he told me that the key to making a house look like it’s from the 80s is not to fill it with 80s furniture, because people aren’t constantly buying new furniture. A house in the 1980s will have furniture from as far back as the early 1970s. I guess that’s true for NASA, as well.
You can watch my interview with him about It here:
Coincidentally, Claude Paré did have to recreate NASA in a period film once. The X-Men prequel Dark Phoenix opens with a scene at NASA that takes place in 1992.
He told me his secret to making this set feel real: “Lamps.”
I guess he didn’t know about NASA’s old TV set.
Thanks for joining me for another look at TV sets in government buildings. (In case you missed it, in the last newsletter I revealed the secret hidden TV set in the Oval Office.) If anyone works at any other government buildings and would like to invite me to find something small and mundane with a secretly interesting story behind it, you know where to find me.
Until next time, thanks for reading. And remember to share this newsletter with someone who would enjoy it.
Loving this series. What's next, a Trinitron in the Pentagon?