Steamboat engineer helped develop space telescope launching this month

Steamboat Springs resident and mechanical engineer Lana Klingemann worked 13 years on the Ball Aerospace team for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch Dec. 22.
Courtesy photo

Steamboat Springs resident and mechanical engineer Lana Klingemann attracted audiences to her local lectures this fall like a science celebrity.

Her lecture in October at the Bud Werner Memorial Library was near standing room only with 170 people in the audience. During a well-attended encore lecture at Colorado Mountain College on Thursday, audience members peppered her with thoughtful and technical questions. Young adults gathered around her post-lecture to ask more questions.

The “Engineering the James Webb Space Telescope” lectures provided an entertaining yet scholarly look at the overall $10 billion project. The advanced telescope is set to launch into space early morning Dec. 22 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana near the equator.

Described as the largest and most powerful telescope ever flown into space, James Webb Space Telescope is a joint project by NASA, the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency. The new telescope will succeed the Hubble Space Telescope as NASA’s flagship astrophysics mission.

The telescope will travel 1 million miles from Earth in 30 days and deploy gradually to reach the second Lagrange point, a gravitationally stable location. The telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket, a large and reliable launch vehicle, by the European Space Agency to attempt to observe the universe’s first galaxies, reveal the birth of stars and planets, and look for exoplanets with the potential for life.

Bud Werner Library Adult Programs Coordinator Jennie Lay said Klingemann’s talk at the library was a vibrant night.

“The audience was filled with space fans of all ages, and the packed house lingered long with tons and tons of questions,” Lay said. “She shed such a brilliant light on the telescope’s creation and the enormity of its forthcoming mission. Even if you weren’t paying attention before, I’m confident that everyone in that room is going to be glued to the news once it goes up. We are about to be awed by the deepest look into space that humans have ever seen.”

Klingemann, 45, grew up in Greeley, earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wyoming and has worked for Ball Aerospace in Boulder for 23 years. She is a senior project engineer at Ball who has worked remotely from Steamboat for more than four years. She worked on the telescope project for 13 years, progressing from mechanical design engineer to subsystem team leader, before moving on to defense-related projects.

The telescope took more than two decades to perfect and complete, as it must be precisely engineered and meticulously tested, because it will not be able to be reached for repairs, Klingemann said.

She described how the telescope is designed to function at a temperature of minus 420 degrees Fahrenheit and will orbit with the Earth around the sun. The design includes a sun shield about the size of a tennis court that is folded up around the main structure and will deploy in space. The design also features a segmented primary mirror in 18 sections made of the metal beryllium and micro-coated in gold.

Klingemann said the telescope is “expected to rewrite text books” with new images and information. The work also led to developments in composite materials, high accuracy machining of materials and advanced Computer Aided Design programs, she said.

“If we want to see further, we need a telescope that is bigger so it can collect more light and can work at colder temps,” Klingemann said of the telescope that will produce better resolution and more accurate images than the Hubble Space Telescope that is in low Earth orbit.

The engineer said the James Webb Space Telescope is required by NASA to function for five years with a goal of operating for 10 years. However, she believes the project will last 12 years.

She said working on the telescope with teams tackling very difficult tasks was “amazing” and “the best part of my career.”

The engineer joked that her first born child was the actuator design for the telescope, which can move the mirrors in precise micro increments while in space. She showed an early tested version actuator to students after the lecture. She said communications through the NASA Deep Space Network from the telescope to mission operations at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore will take 10 seconds round trip.

The enthusiastic lecturer answered an audience question about the keys to her success, such as college internships, a strong work ethic and the ability to work with teams of “phenomenally brilliant” men and women.

Klingemann met her husband, Doug Klingemann, while they both worked at Ball Aerospace. Doug is a former aerospace engineer turned software developer, and the couple have a teenage son and young daughter who attend Steamboat schools and are interested in science and engineering too. The mom engineer has been a guest teacher during space units for third- through fifth-graders for years in Boulder and Steamboat elementary schools.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.