THUNDER BAY — Twenty-three years ago, Colette Lepage graduated from Lakehead University with a degree in chemical engineering.
This week she was reflecting on how what she learned at Lakehead helped her work on the James Webb Space Telescope project.
Soon after graduating, the Sudbury-area native got a job as a contamination control engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
For years, Lepage managed the large “cleanroom” where much of the James Webb flight hardware was integrated.
It’s where airborne and molecular contaminants are kept away from aerospace components during assembly and testing.
Late last year, Lepage participated in preparations for the launch of the JWST from the spaceport in French Guiana.
That three-month project utilized meticulous contamination controls.
She was present for the historic Christmas Day launch of the largest space observatory ever built.
Now, after seeing the astonishing images it has sent back to Earth, it’s almost overwhelming for her to realize what the international team that worked on the project has accomplished.
“Pride, a sense of relief of course because it works, really excited about what the future holds, what discoveries will be unfolded. I mean, this can change the way humanity sees the universe,” Lepage told TBnewswatch in an interview from her office in Maryland.
“How exhilarating!” she added.
Like most other people, she’s impressed by the crispness of the images, describing them as beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Lepage looks forward to what the telescope teaches humankind about the universe in the months and years to come.
“For me, learning more about the exoplanets is one of the things that’s most exciting. What can we learn about planets that are rotating around other stars in our galaxy? I can’t wait to see what they come up with.”
JWST is a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
Lepage feels people everywhere should be inspired by the success of this partnership.
“There were so many people who came together within NASA and from different corners of the planet, and somehow we made it all happen. It’s just proof of what humanity can do when we really put our mind to it… There are trying times in the world right now, but we can also do some amazing things.”
That teamwork, she said is one of the lessons she learned while going to school in Thunder Bay.
“As an engineer you’re taught a lot of technical stuff, but there’s a human element as well. You have to work well together,” Lepage said. “Working hard, long hours, well into the night kind of carried forward into my career.”
Although she’s based in the U.S., she gets back home to Northern Ontario every so often to visit family.
During a recent shopping trip in Sudbury, a chance encounter with a stranger demonstrated to Lepage how people everywhere are intrigued by JWST.
After the man noticed the James Webb launch team T-shirt she was wearing, he initiated a conversation and was impressed on learning she actually worked on the project.
It turned out the man had a backyard telescope and knew quite a bit about JWST.
“I found it interesting that somebody was able to approach me and talk to me about it. It kind of inspires me to know the rest of the world was watching while all of this was happening, and that I was part of it,” Lepage said.
“Sudbury is a small city in Northern Ontario but it reached everybody, which is so cool.”