Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Journey to the Edge of the Universe

Colette Lepage was one of a team of NASA scientists that sent the Hubble Telescope into space

Graham Strong
Published February 08, 2014
Above: Lepage relaxes outside her cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland


This Space Environment Simulator's Integration Frame in Goddard's thermal vacuum chamber was used to help cryogenic (cold) test the Integrated Science Instrument Module of the James Webb Telescope.
(photo credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

It's a question Colette Lepage (BEng'99) has asked since she was a little girl growing up in Sudbury, Ontario. "One of the things I would do when I was a kid was look up and wonder, 'What is really up there?' I would try to fathom what a light year was, or how far away another galaxy was," she explains.

Today, Lepage is part of a multinational team of scientists and engineers integrating and testing components for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Peering into the outer edges of the universe, the telescope will try to find signs of life and answer other questions of the cosmos.

Lepage admits that as she got older, her childhood aspirations disappeared. After all, kids from Northern Ontario don't grow up to be astronauts. Besides, she wasn't the straight "A" student you assume people with the 'Right Stuff' are.

Watching the Big Bang Unfold

Colette Lepage's work at NASA has taken her into the nexus of revolutionary space exploration – most recently testing equipment for the James Webb Space Telescope.

In December 2013, the cleanroom Lepage manages received the last shipment of mirror segments for the James Webb which will be the largest and most powerful space telescope ever constructed.

A close up of the telescope mirror
The telescope's mirror segments are made of beryllium, an extremely strong and light metal, and coated in a layer of gold to reflect infrared light

According to NASA, it will detect light from the first galaxies ever formed – over 13 billion light years away – and explore planets around distant stars. The data it collects will allow astronomers to study every phase of the universe's history from the Big Bang to the evolution of our solar system.

Once launched from South America in 2018, it will orbit in deep space 1 million miles (1.5 million km) from Earth in temperatures of nearly Absolute Zero (-400 degrees Fahrenheit or -240 degrees Celsius).

The telescope's 18 hexagonal mirror segments will unfold to create a 21.3 foot (6.5 m) primary mirror that will gather light and send it to Webb's instruments.

"Aligning the primary mirror segments as though they are a single large mirror means each mirror is aligned to 1/10,000th the thickness of a human hair," Webb Optical Telescope Element Manager Lee Feinberg explained in a NASA press release.

However, her curiosity about the mechanics of the universe never ceased. Lepage got her diploma in chemical engineering technology from Cambrian College in Sudbury before moving to Thunder Bay.

"Initially, I probably didn't have the confidence to go into engineering because I'd heard it was so hard. But after being a technician for a while, I decided I wanted to get my degree. I knew it would open doors." She put her trepidations aside and enrolled in chemical engineering at Lakehead University.

In retrospect, it's easy to see that going to Lakehead was another step closer to Lepage's youthful ambitions even if it didn't seem that way at the time. The Cal Techs of the world are where you'd expect most NASA scientists to graduate from, but Lakehead gave Lepage an exceptional education that helps her every day.

"It was certainly a team effort when I was at Lakehead. I've heard that at other schools there is more competition. It is so much easier when you have a good group of people around you," she says. Another huge positive was the approachability of the professors.

This taught Lepage how to function well with those in positions of power and not be intimidated by them.

"I think those are the two biggest things I took from Lakehead: not being afraid to talk to people at any level and having that sense of camaraderie and family."

"For me, launch day was probably the highest point of my career so far – that was a really cool day to go to work."

Lakehead also emphasized practical experiences that gave her an advantage. In addition to the academic facts of chemical engineering, she learned life skills that scientists need in the real world – everything from making presentations to collaborating on group projects.

"It just seems that if I try my best, it works out," Lepage says. "I worked really hard at Lakehead to get my degree. I knew that if I kept my focus, I'd be able to do it."

Even after graduating in chemical engineering, Lepage still didn't consider a career at the famous National Aeronautics and Space Administration a possibility. It wasn't until she moved to the Washington DC area, a place that had always intrigued her, and saw an ad for an entry-level position for a contamination control engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that her hopes were revived.

"I applied for the position, but I didn't think I was going to get it. I mean, come on! It was exciting just to be interviewing with NASA. As it turned out it was one of the easiest interviews I've ever had." Lepage believes that the confidence and team-oriented approach she learned at Lakehead shone through and helped her get the job.

Since starting at Goddard in 1999, Lepage has found her niche. She's risen to become the manager of one of the largest "cleanrooms" in the world. She ensures that no specs of dust or even tiny molecules of matter get on the telescope components, which could reduce its effectiveness, or worse, render it completely useless. One of her favourite assignments was inspecting components for the Hubble Telescope, the James Webb's predecessor, while strapped inside the space shuttle bay just days before the launch of Hubble's Mission 4.

Four staff using a cart to transport the segment
Primary mirror segment being transported to the Goddard Space Flight Center cleanroom – when assembled and deployed, the James Webb mirror will be the largest ever flown in space. (photo credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

I remember watching days later while they were crawling all over the Hubble Telescope installing the hardware and thinking, wow, just a week ago I was inspecting that exact piece, and now it's in space. Not many people get to be that excited while they're at the office."

It was a moment to reflect on her own journey as well.

"As a kid, I remember dreaming about how awesome it would be to be a member of NASA and thinking it could never happen. But it did. I thank my lucky stars every day."

And Lakehead helped her get there.

"What I want students to realize is that you don't have to go to MIT to be hired at NASA. Lakehead gave me the inspiration and the confidence I needed to work hard and work with others, from the project leads on down. I'm not sure I would have gotten the kind of support I needed anywhere else," Lepage says.

Although Lepage hasn't yet travelled to other planets, if extraterrestrial life is out there, it will probably be discovered by a telescope like the James Webb, not by an astronaut. A telescope that Colette Lepage, along with other dedicated scientists, will have examined one last time before sending it 1.5 million kilometres from Earth to touch the universe.

Not bad for a kid from Northern Ontario, looking up at the stars.

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