Kevin Stiner | February 01, 2024

Telling the Story of NASA’s $10-billion Project

Communications alum spearheads documentary showcasing the launch of the most complex spacecraft in NASA’s history.

Mike McClare '91 capturing beauty shots of NASA's James Webb Telescope

Communication alum Mike McClare ’91 is the man behind the Webby nominated documentary “29 Days on the Edge,” and “The Great Space Telescope,” a soon to be released mini-series on NASA+, chronicling the launch of the James Webb Telescope (JWT).

“The James Webb Telescope is the largest science mission NASA has ever done. It’s the most complex spacecraft that NASA has ever created. It is probably the most expensive science mission that NASA has ever done.”
Mike McClare ’91, NASA JWT Mission Principal Media Producer

McClare’s role included photographing, documenting, scripting, recording, producing, and editing complex information regarding the deployment and planning of the telescope. He needed to convey the JWT mission in laymen’s terms, while remaining scientifically accurate.

Mike McClare '91 directing NASA shoot.

Mike McClare ’91 directing Greg Robinson in the Udvar-Hazy Center, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

“It’s my job to translate the science,” McClare explained. “I don’t really have a science background, but I’ve always loved science. I’ve been a geek since I was in elementary school about science and space. I don’t have a science degree but after being here for 30 years I picked it up through osmosis.”

Mike McClare '91 producing in Paris.

Mike McClare ’91 getting footage in Paris.

“29 Days on the Edge” drew inspiration from another NASA documentary, “Seven Minutes of Terror” emphasizing the parallels between the gut-wrenching days it took for the JWT to successfully transform and unfold after reaching its orbit destination, and the final minutes of the Curiosity rover landing on the surface of Mars.

The Science Behind the James Webb Telescope

The JWT is the product of more than 25 years of planning and is the “premiere telescope of the next decade” as described by NASA. Numerous obstacles needed to be accounted for to ensure a successful launch, including how to transport the telescope, which weighs approximately 14,300 pounds and would not fit within the rocket.

Mike McClare '91 under NASA's James Webb Telescope mirror.

Mike McClare ’91 under JWT’s mirror.

The telescope’s primary mirror is nearly six times the size of the Hubble Telescope, and the sunshield layer, which helps the instruments operate at near absolute zero temperatures, expands to the size of multiple tennis courts.

The size of the JWT compelled the NASA team to incorporate a folding design that would help it fit within the rocket “origami-style” and then unfold like a “Transformer” in space.

“It had to basically do about 50 deployments or unfoldings before it could even work,” McClare said. “There were 344 single point failures on that mission, so at any point one thing could fail and the whole thing was over.”

In the summer of 2022, a spectacular array of images were released that the JWT had captured through infrared waves.

Mike McClare '91 in the NASA Goddard cleanroom with the JWT.

The Great Space Telescope

Although the ground mission of JWT completed with its launch, McClare convinced NASA to tell the countless number of untold stories that made the project possible. “The Great Space Telescope” is a seven-part documentary series exploring first-hand stories and never-before-seen, behind-the-scenes footage of this massive international effort.

NASA+ Streaming