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Elly on the Arts: Local ties to celestial shots from James Webb Space Telescope

"We write this on the day that NASA released the first photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope... it is momentous and it also has a very direct link to Flin Flon."
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Artists' impression of the James Webb Space Telescope.

I wrote this for the Lifestyles 55+ magazine I contribute to each month in Winnipeg for their August edition, but I hope it will be of some interest to readers in our catchment area. I don’t usually repeat columns, but here it is.

We write this on the day that NASA released the first photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope. You might be forgiven if you are wondering why this event is appropriate fodder for a column from northern Manitoba that purports to deal with arts and culture in the north, but bear with us - it really is.

The photographs are extraordinary. They are “taken” in the infrared spectrum of light, which the human eye is not capable of seeing. The science behind the telescope is well beyond our mind to comprehend but we can marvel at it, along with the rest of the world. The thought, however, that attracted us to the event is that the beauty of the images, which apparently capture events that happened literally billions of years ago, was only able to be really expressed in the language of art and culture. Seasoned journalists reported on the images with awe usually reserved for paintings by Old Masters.

The images have been colourized by computer programs that comingle arts sensibility and science and technology. Several local artists in our neck of the woods (boreal forest “woods”, that is) utilize simpler versions of this technology every day. The knowledge explosion that these photographs represent will certainly spill over into the development of new ideas and ultimately guide new and more expansive technology that will change lives. It is amazing to imagine - and perhaps a little terrifying.

Authors will write new science fiction; filmmakers will make wondrous movies, both fictional and factual. Visual artists will represent new ideas in paint or stone. It is momentous and it also has a very direct link to Flin Flon.

“Whoa,” you might be thinking - “What?” It’s true.

In 1966, a particular baby boy was born here. He grew up in a time before computers were widely available to the general public, but he was fascinated with rockets and new technologies from an early age. His name was Dennis Henry. His father Roy Henry and youngest sister Kendra still live here in town. His mom, Pat West, stepdad Dan and middle sister Joanne now live in British Columbia.

Dennis graduated from Hapnot Collegiate with loads of scholarships, including the W.A. Green and the Governor General’s Medal, then went to university at McMaster in Hamilton - that was the one university at which he could pursue a degree in computer science. He went to work for COM DEV International in Kitchener, a firm that specializes in the design, development and manufacture of space hardware subsystems. The company was contracted to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and was consequently a partner in the NASA/CSA/European Space Agency project to build the James Webb Space Telescope. Dennis was the team leader who designed the fine guidance system that focuses and holds steady the “cameras” that are recording the images we saw today.

Dennis passed away in 2009 at age 43 after a strenuous battle with cancer - far too soon, to be sure. He made other amazing technological advances in his journey on this planet in the design and manufacturer of NASA’s NSCAT Scatterometer, which is an instrument deployed in space on a satellite to measure wind speed as it directs tides on earth and MOPITT (Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere). It was launched into earth orbit by NASA in 1999 and continues to transmit data on pollution patterns and their effect on the lower atmosphere. It was also funded significantly by the CSA.

Flin Flon, and in particular the Henry/West families, are justifiably proud of this exceptional man who proves the value of what the north has to offer to our community, the country and the world.