Summit County woman builds bond with daughter through her work on James Webb Space Telescope
Floating one million miles away from Earth is a telescope that has been a witness to fantastic space formations that will help to unearth the story of the universe.
It has also been a witness to a relationship between a mother and daughter.
Rebecca Espina grew up in Summit County, has NASA attached to her email domain, worked on the James Webb Space Telescope and achieved a dream that she chased out of her adolescence.
And through all of those achievements, she’s had her daughter right there with her to celebrate along the way.
The Webb telescope launched in December 2021 and just recently released its first photos in July.
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It is an upgraded version of the Hubble Space Telescope, a telescope that was launched in 1990 to capture far-reaching corners of the universe. This modernized telescope, then, will allow NASA to learn more about the creation of the universe.
“The longer wavelengths enable (James Webb Space Telescope) to look further back in time to see the first galaxies that formed in the early universe and to peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today,” according to the Webb telescope webpage.
Espina’s job was to test various mechanical parts of the Webb telescope to see if they could withstand the force of the initial launch into space.
She worked at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for 10 years as a senior structural mechanical systems engineer through Kellogg Brown & Root engineering company. For a brief stint, she was a stay-at-home mom for five years, and then returned to Goddard for the past eight years.
Espina’s daughter, Alex, has grown up with a close relationship to her mother in and out of their home in Maryland and at Rebecca’s work at Goddard, watching her test hundreds of parts that would eventually launch millions of miles away into the depths of space.
As Rebecca analyzed different mechanisms, 7-year-old Alex would sometimes run around the building watching different engineers or scientists do their work.
“She got to see things move, she got to attend my meetings, she met my boss, and she heard me on the phone in meetings,” Espina said. “And when I’m driving, lately, she’s even the one dialing the phone and helping.”
Rebecca said Alex is now in college, but throughout high school, she struggled in her aerospace program. Not because she’s not smart, Rebecca said, but because she has an intense pressure to “always be innovative.”
“She found that in high school, some of her peers were dropping out,” Rebecca said.
After watching her daughter, Rebecca saw some of her peers so intimidated by needing to be the best and the brightest that it turned them off from their passion.
But because of Rebecca and Alex’s relationship, Rebecca knew she could be honest with her daughter — to tell her she doesn’t have to be the best to do life-changing work.
“There’s a lot of science and a lot of technology that happens based on the fundamentals and based on heritage,” Rebecca said. “And you tweak heritage, and it can be super successful.”
Rebecca even added that not every person in aerospace needs to have a four-year degree to do good work. “They need people who take pride in their work and to learn how to do their job with precision,” she said.
And if there’s one thing Rebecca has learned throughout her career, it’s that the people she works with sometimes mean more to her on a daily basis than the end goal — especially if they take pride in their work.
Rebecca said she is very lucky to have not experienced discrimination in her field, and to also routinely be surrounded by other women in the workplace, something she’s proud her daughter has been a witness to.
“She sees women in engineering and she sees how successful we are and how vocal we can be,” Rebecca said.
And now, one of those women will soon be Alex.
Since her work on the Webb telescope has ended, Rebecca has shifted her passion to work on the next big space venture: the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.
While she works on this new project and Alex ventures into her college years, the Webb telescope will continue to explore space, leaving both of them behind on Earth.
“There’s definitely pride when something launches and it’s successful, and more pride when people know about it and you can say, I did work on that,” Rebecca said. “But on a day-to-day basis, I guess, it doesn’t really doesn’t affect me.”
The first few days the Webb telescope came out, Rebecca said she loved to stare at pictures of what it had captured. Now the novelty has worn off, but she said Alex still gets excited to see them.
“I think my daughter takes pride that I’ve worked on it and that she was a part of it,” Rebecca said. “I definitely made an effort to have her be part of it.”