Colette Lepage (BEng’99) woke up with a sense of dread on the morning of May 11, 2009. The Space Shuttle Atlantis was preparing to blast into space for the final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope and Colette – a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineer – would be there for the launch at the Kennedy Space Center.
“We’d lost two shuttles already,” she says, “so we could have lost all of our hardware and watched seven people die.” The Lakehead chemical engineering grad had been in the shuttle bay with the astronauts in the days leading up to the countdown “inspecting practically every centimetre of the hardware for contamination.”
Colette’s path to joining NASA’s team wasn’t the usual one. She is a small-town Canadian girl whose curiosity about the universe was sparked by the clear night skies over the outskirts of Sudbury, Ontario, where she grew up.
After getting a Chemical Engineering Technology diploma from Cambrian College, she worked for several years before applying to Lakehead’s faculty of engineering – afraid she wasn’t smart enough, but knowing she’d never forgive herself if she didn’t try.
Not only did she finish her degree, Colette soon landed a job as a control contamination engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. By the time of the Hubble mission, she was managing one of the largest clean rooms in the world – the Spacecraft Systems Development and Integration Facility (SSDIF) – which keeps airborne and molecular contaminants away from aerospace components during assembly and testing.
Then from 2009 to 2017, Colette was part of a team of international scientists constructing the largest telescope ever built – the James Webb Space Telescope. “It will look back in time to capture the first light after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.” Colette, who’s now working as a NASA consultant, may be travelling to South America to support the telescope launch in 2019.
The James Webb will change how we understand the universe. Reflecting on her own experiences, Colette says, “Nothing about my life is what you would expect. I’ve learned that you never know how things will turn out, so just keep trying.”
View the Webb Telescope Milestone: Completion of Telescope Element Video