James Webb Space Telescope coverage wins Pulitzer Prize for science writer Natalie Wolchover and Quanta

James Vaughan's rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope focuses on the observatory's giant mirror.
Coverage of the James Webb Space Telescope by science writer Natalie Wolchover and Quanta Magazine won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. (Image credit: James Vaughan)

Science writer Natalie Wolchover has received a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for her work at Quanta Magazine explaining the intricate story of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which launched in December.

Wolchover is a senior writer and editor for Quanta who has been there since the magazine's inception in 2013. From 2010 to 2012, she was a staff writer (opens in new tab) for Space.com's sister site Live Science. The Pulitzer, awarded May 9 to the magazine with a special mention for Wolchover, was given in the category of explanatory reporting. 

The Pulitzer committee awarded the 2022 Prize for Explanatory Reporting "for coverage that revealed the complexities of building the James Webb Space Telescope, designed to facilitate groundbreaking astronomical and cosmological research," the organization stated (opens in new tab).

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Wolchover was recovering from COVID-19 when the news came through to her. "I'm lying in bed in a COVID daze struggling to believe that this is real and not a fever dream," she joked on Twitter (opens in new tab).

"It's a wonderful recognition for our whole team, and for the ethos of science journalism," she added of the prize-winning story (opens in new tab), titled "The Webb Space Telescope Will Rewrite Cosmic History. If It Works."

Wolchover's tale elegantly traces the bedeviling engineering process that produced the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion observatory that launched more than a decade late and very much over budget. She notes that even after launch (which took place Dec. 25, 2021; the article was published Dec. 3), Webb still had to face numerous issues during its commissioning.

For example, she describes how the telescope was delicately folded into the rocket to be unfurled in space for the long journey to a deep-space location, where a sunshield must be executed just right to keep the telescope shielded from sun that would interfere with infrared observations.

"The sunshield is both an infrared telescope’s only hope and its Achilles heel. In order to unfurl to large enough proportions without weighing down a rocket, the sunshield must consist of thin fabric," she wrote.

After discussing Webb's tiny mass compared with a ground-based telescope, a necessity to get the groundbreaking observatory to space, she elaborated on the fabric issue further.

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"Nothing about building a giant yet lightweight infrared-sensing spacecraft is easy, but the unavoidable use of fabric makes it an inherently risky affair," Wolchover said. "Fabric is, engineers say, 'nondeterministic,' its movements impossible to perfectly control or predict. If the sunshield snags as it unfurls, the whole telescope will turn into space junk."

Happily, Webb's deployment went just fine and after nearly five straight months of commissioning in space, NASA coincidentally also announced in May that the observatory is within the 'homestretch' of the 1,000-step commissioning period. The first science images from the space telescope are expected in July.

Wolchover also notes in the article the groundbreaking research Webb will perform if all goes to plan, as it probes the early universe, seeks the first galaxies and otherwise tries to understand the forces that shaped the cosmos.

A comparison of views of the same part of the sky as seen by NASA's retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right))

Wolchover was a staff writer at LiveScience, a sister publication of Space.com, between 2010 and 2012. Notable stories she penned for LiveScience in her last few months there included outlining the top mysteries of physics (opens in new tab), a discussion concerning whether the Voyager 1 spacecraft had exited the solar system (opens in new tab), and the physics of the first supersonic space dive (opens in new tab). Wolchover also occasionally wrote for Space.com.

She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley, according to her Live Science biography, and before the Pulitzer she won numerous other journalistic prizes. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, and the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics. 

"Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science," her Live Science biography states (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before joining full-time, freelancing since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace