Meet the Jewish space engineer who helped bring us images taking us closer to moment of creation

Shul-going NASA veteran Michael Kaplan was part of the team that built the James Webb Space Telescope


They are the images which take humanity closer to very moment of creation than ever before, brought to us by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Now a shul-going Jewish space engineer who helped create the historic NASA project has celebrated the results as a “blessing”.

Speaking to the JC, former NASA veteran Michael Kaplan said: “Why wouldn’t we expect that the universe that God created be a beautiful Universe, right? I mean, in a sense it’s just as I expected.”

He added: “As old as humans are, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered. It’s one of the oldest sciences, and we’ve always thought and wondered, ‘What’s up there? What are we looking at?’ I’m still a little bit in awe over the pictures I saw earlier today.”

He was speaking just hours after the world had gazed in wonder at the first images from the JWST. It enables humanity to see light from the most distant stars and galaxies, in existence just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang which scientists believe was the moment of the creation of the universe.

Launched into orbit last year and only now fully operational, the JWST is a vast upgrade on NASA’s earlier Hubble space telescope, which itself was able to capture better images than any instrument on earth without the atmosphere in the way.

A former NASA engineer with more than 40 years of experience in the space industry, Mr Kaplan was speaking to the JC as he left NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre where he had been enjoying the release of the images with his colleagues. He had first worked on the JWST more then a quarter of a century ago.

A member of the Har HaShem congregation in Boulder, Colorado, Kaplan told the JC: “God created the universe and God created us. He blessed us with the intellect and the curiosity to want to explore the universe and he gave us the intellectual capacity to be able to design and build such amazing instruments as James Webb and as the Mars Rovers and all the other amazing tools that we have to explore the universe.”

Mr Kaplan, who took on Israeli citizenship when he spent five years of his career consulting for Space Israel, said: “The James Webb Telescope can see in five years of observations what the Hubble Telescope would see in 15 years.

“Many, many friends and colleagues told me they were driven to tears when they saw these images. We knew they were going to be remarkable because we looked at the specifications.

“We knew Webb was going to be able to get extraordinary information and images. But until you actually see it, you can’t imagine it.

“This just further confirms my deeply held belief that the universe is a beautiful, amazing thing. And the pictures that we got from James Webb are more powerful or more beautiful than any human artists could possibly imagine.”

Projects like the Webb Telescope take decades to be realised, and Kaplan was there at the start.

“From a personal point of view, I’m still quite emotional about all this,” he said.

“Because in a sense, it was almost like the highlight of my career. And here I am, 25 years later. I’ve done some amazing things personally, but nothing’s ever going to touch that.”

While the entire space community is celebrating the latest images released from the JWST, Kaplan says the future is exciting. “The pictures that were released are our early releases. It’s a gross understatement to say the best is yet to come. I mean, it’s really just so remarkable.”

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