Photographer Spends 15 Years Capturing the Construction of the James Webb Space Telescope

Making of JWST

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was 30 years in the making and now as it orbits the Sun delivering incredible imagery of the Universe a photographer who documented its construction has revealed his jaw-dropping pictures.

Chris Gunn joined the JWST team in 2009 after serving as a photographer on the Hubble mission — he spent 15 years with a front-row seat for one of humanity’s greatest technological and scientific achievements.

Inspecting JWST mirrors
The very first mirror segment arrives at NASA Goddard. | NASA/Christopher Gunn.
Mirror cleaning
Engineers clean one of the mirrors with carbon dioxide snow.
JWST telescope
The first time the JWST had been fully assembled.

In a recent interview with PopSci, Gunn explains that the most challenging part of documenting the JWST was the constantly evolving nature of the project.

“Seeing parts of the observatory come together was amazing, but the trick was to keep a consistent look and feel in my photographs throughout the project,” he says.

Engineers test the future space telescope.
Thermal blankets
Webb’s thermal blankets are tied up with strings.

“I started to pay more attention to the environments that I was shooting and bring elements of these environments into my compositions. When I could light my subjects, I took great care to do it subtly. Eventually, I realized that JWST’s geometry photographed beautifully but any distortion ate away at that beauty. Over time I became a more selective shooter with more restraint.”

JWST mirrors
The JWST primary mirrors are uncovered in preparation for instrument installation.
What photographer could resist a selfie in the JWST? NASA photographers Chris Gunn and Desiree Stover pose in one of its massive mirrors.
Wall of filters
Yingrui “Zao” Huang stands in front of the wall of filters that help keep the cleanroom at NASA Goddard clean.
Mirror deployment
Critical deployment of Webb’s secondary mirror.

Gunn has released a book of his pictures called Inside the Star Factory which is accompanied by an in-depth overview of the JWST by science writer Christopher Wanjek.

“My favorite moments include the arrival of the first mirrors, the first time I saw the optical system deployed inside of NASA Johnson’s test chamber, and the mating of the optical system to the sunshield and main spacecraft bus,” Gunn tells PopSci.

“During each of these project milestones the cleanrooms were filled with a sense of awe and wonder. They aren’t particularly noisy in general, but they were super quiet for these moments. I had a sense that I was witnessing something great that humankind was achieving. ”





Gunn says that because the project was so long he ended up shooting on three different cameras: a Nikon D3, a Nikon D4, and a medium-format Hasselblad-H camera.

More of Gunn’s work can be found on his website, Instagram, and Twitter/X.

Image credits: Photographs by NASA/Chris Gunn