Scott Willougby

Scott Willougby ’89, vice president and program manager of the James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop Grumman, led a team tasked with most of the telescope's design and construction.

For Scott Willoughby, it's 'Mission: Possible' for the James Webb Space Telescope

Scott Willoughby ’89 helped lead development of the most powerful and complex space telescope ever launched.

Photography by

John McGillen

As told to Mary Ellen Alu and Christine Fennessy.

As the James Webb Space Telescope launched into history on Christmas morning 2021 from a spaceport near the equator in Kourou, French Guiana, Lehigh engineering alum Scott Willougby ’89 was there in the control center, and he was experiencing a roller coaster of emotions.

At stake was decades of people’s work—and millions of hours—spent building the complex Webb telescope, an international collaboration among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. As vice president and program manager of the Webb telescope at Northrop Grumman, Willoughby led a team tasked with most of its design and construction—a telescope near seven times the size of its predecessor, the Hubble, much more powerful and capable of detecting stars farther out in space, some 14 billion light years away. 

Too big to fit into any existing rocket, the Webb telescope had to be folded up, like origami, at launch, to eventually be unfolded and deployed in space. Eighteen gold-coated hexagons that reflect infrared light make up its main mirror, all protected by a multi-layered sunshield to block out the hot sun and keep the mirror cold for imaging. 

Some 25 years in the making, the Webb telescope cost $10 billion to build. For Willoughby, who has been with the project for more than 12 years, watching the Webb telescope finally head for the heavens was like experiencing one of his children leave the roost.

“You see the countdown clock coming, and you feel it in your stomach,” says Willoughby, in interviews with the Bulletin and the “Rossin Connection” podcast. “This is a huge moment. Because when they light that rocket and it goes, that’s it, that’s a huge part of your fate, right? You’re igniting a bunch of chemicals to blow up underneath [the rocket] to propel [it] into space. And it goes ... flawlessly. You’re sitting and you’re watching. It’s a surreal feeling. 

“Because of this deployment sequence that still has to happen after we get on orbit—two weeks of high anxiety of deployments and months of calibration—you really don’t know where to celebrate. Everything feels good, but there’s one more thing after. You’re ready to explode with joy because the rocket launches. Oh, but we still have to separate the payload fairing. Whoof! Then the payload fairing comes out. We still need to separate from the upper stage.”

This is real footage of the James Webb Space Telescope in space. The view is from the upper stage camera on Ariane 5 as the James Webb Space Telescope pulls away. Video: NASA

An upper stage camera provided a last look at the Webb telescope as it left the launch vehicle and headed toward its final destination 1 million miles from Earth. 

“All of a sudden there is Webb, and it separates from the upper stage, and for the last time humankind is going to see Webb,” Willoughby says. “Literally these cameras are showing the backside of our telescope in its folded form drifting away. And then there’s the Earth horizon below in the cameras. … At that moment, it’s real. And the goosebumps are on you. The tears are welling. I can feel it just describing it to you now, because you’ve invested so much.”

In early January, after completion of the Webb telescope’s final major deployment, Willoughby sat down for the two separate interviews to talk about the space observatory and what it means for humankind. He also talked about his blue-collar roots, his Lehigh days and his own personal journey from a self-described smart-aleck kid growing up in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to leading the Northrop Grumman team on one of the most consequential developments for humankind. The interviews were combined and edited for space and clarity. 

Willoughby, who was raised by a single mom and extended family, sometimes having to rely on public assistance, had imagined at an early age that he’d be a bartender, like his grandfather. Though good at science and math—a skill, he says, honed by helping his grandfather figure out horse-betting odds—he didn’t think he could afford college. Then a friend handed him an application that could be used to apply to Lehigh. To his surprise, he says, he was accepted. And he was awarded a financial scholarship that made it possible. 

“I hadn’t been out of my enclave,” Willoughby says. When he drove out to campus with his dad for a tour and took in Lehigh’s beautiful stone buildings, he found it both intimidating and welcoming. “You ran into people and they were nice to you,” he says. “To some degree, they didn’t know if I was accomplished or not accomplished. I was a freshman, and you’re going to go cut your teeth on your own.”

Scott Willoughby

Scott Willoughby ’89 is paying it forward by setting up the Sarah and Scott Willoughby Scholarship Fund at Lehigh.

Years later, approaching his Lehigh graduation, Willoughby set his sights on California, where his brother was then living. He combed Lehigh’s printed alumni directories to find electrical engineers there and wrote to about 20 of them. “I said, I want to move to California. I’d love to get a job out there, to talk to you,” Willoughby recalls. One Lehigh alum who was working at TRW, now Northrop Grumman, helped him make a connection there, and the rest is history. 

Today, Willoughby is paying it forward with the Sarah and Scott Willoughby Scholarship Fund at Lehigh. He also has spoken to Lehigh classes, met with other first-generation students like himself and led students on tours of the Webb telescope while it was under construction.

Do you remember the first time you learned about space? What got you hooked?

It’s an interesting question because a lot of people assume—I’ve been working in space for 32 years—that I grew up and I aspired to that. And the interesting thing was, I really didn’t. I always was a nerd about things, puzzle-solving. I like space. I watched Star Trek. I was always inspired by movies like that, but when I went to [Lehigh] to be an engineer, I wasn’t destined to be in space. I really just liked solving problems. ... My first days of work at TRW, which is now Northrop Grumman, the company I hired into, they put me on a space program. And at that moment in time, I was hooked.

What was it that kept you there and kept you excited about the work you were doing? I probably would have been voted by my friends, most likely not to be in a job for 32 years. I’m impatient or I move around a lot. I like to solve things, but I like trying different things, and to be in the same company for 32 years is pretty amazing. … I’ve actually had well over a dozen different jobs [at TRW and Northrop Grumman], so I didn’t have to leave the team, so to speak. But when I got into space, it seemed like this almost magical thing. The idea that I was building something that would just leave and go thousands of miles away from Earth and have to do its job, wasn’t going to return, no ability to service it, it puts a lot of pressure on you, and, for some reason, I enjoyed responding to that pressure.

Telescopes are sometimes referred to as time machines. Can you explain what that means and what makes the Webb telescope such a powerful time machine?

We love the term because it kind of captures you, right? The time machine. And we are looking back in time. People will look at me quizzically when I say that, and then they’ll ask me if I can look into the future. We can’t do that. But the reason it’s a time machine, and one of the easier references is, our own sun is about 93 million miles away from us, and we look at it, and we see the light. ... Even at the speed of light, that light that left the sun took eight minutes to get to our eyeballs because it still had to travel a distance, 93 million miles. So, in effect, we are looking at the sun as it was eight minutes ago. ... It’s like an archeological dig. When you find the dinosaur bones that have been under that earth because you dig deeper and deeper, you’re finding things as they were historically. Well, we do that with light out there in space.

A significant milestone in Webb’s journey was Jan. 8, when the final major deployment was completed. We saw a lot of clapping and high fives. So was that a different feeling for you than on launch day?

That had a bit more relief in it. I will say that at the rocket launch, it was that emotional feeling of, it’s gone. But it was also, we’ve now got to start the hard job. We need to deploy this in space. Of course, we’ve never done that before. We deployed it three times on the ground, and every one of those, we learn a little more lessons, a little more lessons, as we’re kind of taking the training wheels off, right? This was it. ...

Then for two weeks straight, you’re doing something that has never, ever been done in space before, something with 344 single-point failures, where landing Perseverance on Mars was less than 100, and everybody could tell how intense that engineering feat was. So every day there are mini successes. We fire these nonexplosive actuators, and we see something move—a cover moves, a mid-boom comes out, a structure moves out. That Saturday was the last major deployment. … That elation contained a whole lot of relief.  It wasn’t that we were done, but we were done with some of the most complicated things that literally had to go right the first time. ... The most important thing I wanted to do was get into the room where my team was, [the people] who were in the headsets sending those commands, and say, You did it.

You’ve said that working on Webb taught you and your team how to collaborate on an engineering level, and a healthy tension can bring out the best in people. Can you expand on what it takes to be successful?

As engineers there’s a tendency to want to be the smartest person in the room, and it’s good, right? Your whole drive is to get 100 on that test, design something that somebody hasn’t. But what’s most important is to have a bit of humility in that. I always told folks, when you walk into my meetings, you check your ego at the door. You can bring your pride, and I want you to bring all the tools you have. ... But if you can’t hear maybe a different vantage point, then you know it’s hard to put you on this team, because there is no one engineer who can do this.

Willoughby graduated summa cum laude from Lehigh in 1989 with an electrical engineering degree. He went on to receive a master’s in communications systems engineering from the University of Southern California and attended the executive program at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Did you come to Lehigh as an engineering major?

I did. I came in as an engineer because I saw engineering as kind of agnostic to status. This was my perception, right? … I applied to engineering because I was good at math and science and I could solve problems. I was the person that if the phone broke, I would fix it. If the refrigerator door was on the wrong side, I would swap it. I could set the clock on the VCR. That used to be a major accomplishment back in my day [laughs].

Artist rendering of James Webb Space Telescope in space

An artist rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope. It is capable of detecting stars some 14 billion light years away.


 

 


 

We take pride at Lehigh in our interdisciplinary research teams, and the Webb telescope obviously exemplifies that approach to engineering. What did you learn about bringing disciplines together to solve problems?

You start realizing that as an engineer, the value of what you bring in—I’ll call your discipline—doesn’t result in anything unless you’re working with, sometimes, three or five or 10 other disciplines that you have to learn to appreciate as soon as you can in your career, because otherwise, you’re going to design something that can’t be built or that the user can’t use. That is a wonderful white elephant sitting in the corner. But that’s not your purpose. You need to design things that can be made, whatever noble purpose you want or not, whether it’s going to be a widget people want, make a lot of money, or something that’s going to be like the Webb telescope. We built [the Webb telescope] such that information now is gathered and others can use that to understand: Where do we come from? Are we alone? All these amazing questions we’re trying to answer.  So multidisciplinary, you’re going to get it at work, no matter what. The fact that you start introducing that to kids in school, earlier on, and being on these teams, I think they’re going to gain the appreciation that what they’re doing only matters if it can come to fruition. 

Did any professors influence you?

I’ll always remember Professor [Karl H.] Norian in electrical engineering. I was always a bit of a rebel. I kind of had a chip on my shoulder, as the poor kid in a school a bit more affluent than where I came from. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have clothing that looked as normal as others. I would sometimes go to class, not go to class. I was still kind of used to high school where I could kind of cut classes for as long as I wanted and still go in and pass the test. I’m not saying that from an arrogant standpoint. That part was easy for me. … So I had to kind of learn how to be.

Professor Norian asked me to be one of his teaching assistants [TAs] and help proctor one of the classes and give the pop quizzes and get a credit for it. I don’t know why he picked me. I’m guessing he saw somebody who was capable enough but also maybe needed somebody to act like they cared, and give me a little more responsibility to do something. … When you’re just responsible for yourself, you can kind of cut corners, take your chances. But being in front of the room, it made me think differently. I wanted to be more responsible because now I was a TA. So it was really nice of him to do that.

Did you discover anything surprising about yourself while at Lehigh?

I learned you really can’t judge the book by the cover. … When I got to Lehigh, I almost wanted to believe anybody who had more than me was somebody I had to battle against. I had to find some other way to be better than ’em because I wasn’t going to be with my bank account or my stature, and I didn’t necessarily know what side of the plate the fork should go on, or things of that nature. And I found both sides. I found the people who were stereotypical to what I thought, and I found friends who were engaging with me and my close friends to this day, who came from a background so far removed from mine, but somehow we hit it off. We enjoyed certain sports together. We had the camaraderie of being in the same classes or doing stuff. And then I realized, kids are just kids. Everybody’s formed by where they came from, but you shouldn’t immediately presume that someone’s going to be a certain way because, again, that’s judging the book by the cover. And those four years really formed me. 

Last year, you and your wife created the Sarah and Scott Willoughby Scholarship Fund. Who is the scholarship for, and why was it important for you to establish it?

This is my start of giving back. I have just one sole criteria, that it’s somebody who needs it. I kind of had a mixture of A-pluses and D’s on my high school transcript. I was a bit truant. I would get in arguments with teachers. I kind of want to find some kid like me who just needs somebody to care enough to say, You can clear those D’s off of your transcript if you put a little attention to it. I want somebody else to go to Lehigh with an opportunity that they wouldn’t have if that [scholarship] didn’t exist.

Webb will take its first images six months after launch. Do you think there’s life out there?

I think we’re going to find something that we didn’t even think to ask about, to be honest with you. I do. … Odds are there’s something out there that is close to us. The question is, are we—the James Webb Space Telescope—going to be the ones lucky enough to find that? And we have a shot. So yeah, I believe we will.

Photography by

John McGillen

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