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Science and music collide with the James Webb Space Telescope

Lee Feinberg, the Optical Telescope Element manager for Webb, who is also a musician. (Image credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

What's the secret ingredient that has supported scientists at NASA in creating the most powerful space telescope in history? Music.

The James Webb Space Telescope, a collaborative effort between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, is set to launch on Saturday (Dec. 25), more than 25 years after development on the observatory began in 1996. Working on this mission for all that time, team members at NASA found themselves connecting over not just the telescope, but also a shared love of music.

The result is a band called "Outta Scope." 

The perfectly punnily-named band, led by Lee Feinberg, a keyboardist who also happens to be the Optical Telescope Element manager for Webb at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, is made up of Webb scientists and other NASA team members. The band has been together for about 20 years, almost as long as the telescope has been in development.

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At NASA, Feinberg is a senior engineer who has worked on Webb and its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, for the last 20 years. Feinberg also works on other forthcoming space telescopes including the Roman Space Telescope and Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA). As the Optical Telescope Elements manager for Webb, he has worked to perfectly align the telescope — an important job since the observatory's primary mirror has 18 different segments that all need to align perfectly to point to its different planned targets and get crystal-clear sharpness in its images. 

But outside of this role at NASA, Feinberg is a lifelong musician who has played keyboard in "Outta Scope" since the band formed 20 years ago. He also plays Allman Brothers cover songs in a blues band called "The Allman Others," and he plays in a funk and bluegrass band called HoneyFunk. 

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But "Outta Scope" is unique as it is truly a space band. The band's members have fluctuated over the years as Webb has continued to come to fruition, but the members all have the shared connection of outer space. One of the band's other core members is John McCloskey, a lead engineer for electrical noise at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who has worked on Webb and who plays both the guitar and the trumpet.

Below, check out the Outta Scope album titled "Time Machine," with songs written by band members including Feinberg and McCloskey. 

"It's been interesting to try and weave that in with working on a telescope like this," Feinberg said about being both a musician and a NASA engineer on Webb at a news conference in May of this year.

"I've kept it the whole way through working at NASA," he added about his music. "[I've] gotten better and better."

"There are actually a lot of musicians on Webb," he said. 

In addition to being comprised of Webb and NASA team members, the band also had some space-y performances and used to play at some of the Webb team's parties before the COVID-19 pandemic, Feinberg said.

Now, while some might be surprised to find so many musicians working at NASA, Feinberg is not so shocked. 

"I think there is a lot of similarity between the creative process that you do when you play music and the creative process of engineering, especially in the early phase of engineering and in the problem-solving phase," Feinberg said. "Music has a mathematical side to it."

Feinberg did add that, while science and music have a special connection, Webb has inspired all different types of art. With its visually striking hexagonal gold mirror, it has inspired countless pieces of artwork. NASA has hosted an ongoing program inviting the general public to create art inspired by the telescope. The agency has many of these art pieces published on Flickr (opens in new tab).

"People were able to create all these amazing [pieces of art]," Feinberg said. "So there's some really interesting overlap. And I think even some of the scientific questions that Webb will ask, you know, about how did the universe get here? Where is it going? Is there life? These are all things that inspire artists, as well."

Adults and children all over the world have so far submitted their own personal pieces of artwork, whether they be paintings, drawings or even sculptures, inspired by Webb. 

"We do it for the same reason we do art and we do music," Feinberg said about the team's work on Webb. "It's for raising humanity a little bit, I think that's the inspiration."

The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch on Dec. 25, atop an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency's Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. You can watch the launch live here at Space.com. The mission will blast off at 7:20 a.m. EDT (1220 GMT).  

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.