An Unwavering Focus

Applying to be an astronaut and contributing to JWST’s readiness.


Charles-Philippe Lajoie
Dr. Charles-Philippe Lajoie

Dr. Charles-Philippe Lajoie knew as a child that he wanted to become a professional astronomer. His roles at the institute have led him to work on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), preparing it for launch. And, in 2016, he applied to be an astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency. Here, Dr. Lajoie shares how he became an astronomer and the rewarding challenges he’s faced so far.

How did you end up at STScI?

I’ve wanted to work in the field of astronomy since I was 12, when Venus was first pointed out to me in the sky. It blew my mind that one could see a planet with their naked eye. I bought a telescope and pursued physics and math, since I knew that’s what I needed to do to become an astronomer.

I learned a lot while I earned my PhD from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and knew I wanted to find a position that focused on astronomy research. My wife worked at the institute and it was very appealing, so I applied. Although everything I do is in support of JWST, I consider it research: trying to figure out new and better ways to use the observatory’s instruments and telescope. I started as a research and instruments analyst, working on the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) team, to focus on simulations of its coronagraphs and optimizing operations to get the most out of the data.

What does your role as an astronomical optics scientist for JWST entail?

I am a member of the Wavefront Sensing and Control (WFSC) operations team and my primary focus is on the commissioning of JWST’s mirror segments. I participated in a few campaigns of ground tests of the mirror hardware at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center, and since then I’ve been preparing and participating in a series of wavefront rehearsals. These activities represent a major milestone as the focus shifts from ground testing to operational flight readiness. There are over 30 separate steps that need to happen before the mirror segments are aligned, and I have been reviewing and rehearsing procedures for every single one of them. This work requires a deep understanding of the commissioning plan, as well as of the inherent physics of creating images with a segmented telescope.

Overall, issuing commands to move all 18 primary mirror segments and the secondary mirror of JWST’s telescope is somewhat of a thrill since it impacts the performance of all of the observatory’s science instruments. We’ve built a lot of confidence in the mirror hardware through ground testing and we now know the hardware works as expected. When we fly and commission the telescope, none of it will feel like the first time. It will feel like any other day.

For the last year, I have also had the privilege to work as the deputy lead of the telescopes branch. In this position, I help detail and plan our branch’s overall workload, as well as support my teammates in their work. It provides me with the bigger picture and is, in a different way, very rewarding.

In 2016, you applied to become an astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency. What was that experience like?

Going to space has been a lifelong dream. The calls don’t come often in Canada. When it did, there was no doubt I was going to apply. I was selected from more than 3,700 candidates, and went through multiple rounds of testing off and on for 10 months. I made it to the final 17 before I was cut.

One of the last rounds focused on simulations and survival training. For example, I was on a replica of a navy ship compartment that was flooded with ice cold water—and had to work with a team to patch those holes. Immediately afterward, we were taken to a fire extinction drill, and then I had to extricate myself from a sinking helicopter. It was intense, but these experiences taught me how resilient I am. I’ve applied many of those stressful lessons to my work on JWST.

Why do you enjoy working at STScI?

I love my work at the institute because I get to work on JWST, the greatest and most complex space observatory built to date, along with some of the smartest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with! The WFSC team is close-knit, despite having members in various locations. We meet often and go out for dinner. One time, we went go-karting and that was a lot of fun! The institute also has great benefits. As a new father, I was able to take parental leave to welcome and care for our new baby. This time was immensely beneficial for our family and my relationship with my daughter.

Article updated March 2019.