Discovering life after the Big Bang

Aerospace alum ends NASA career ‘looking back in time’

Satellite orbiting earth.

By Peter Murphy

“The telescope tells us what the universe looked like when the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang. It is colloquially called ‘looking back in time.’ ”
UB alum John Durning, former deputy project manager
NASA, James Webb Telescope
John Durning in office.

Durning in his office in 2010, a few years after joining the James Webb Telescope team.

NASA’s James Webb Telescope is delivering the clearest images of what the universe looked like billions of years ago. These images have captivated the public, and—perhaps more important—have impacted theories on the Big Bang and our universe more broadly.

University at Buffalo aerospace engineering alumnus John Durning (BS’85), who began his career at NASA over 30 years ago, has played a key role in what could be some of the most significant and unexpected findings related to space in decades.

“Scientifically, the James Webb Telescope’s mission is to understand how the universe came to be, and to validate or invalidate our model for understanding our place in the universe,” says Durning. “I think it will give us a better perspective on things happening here on earth and could help us work together.”

Durning spent 16 years on the James Webb Telescope project, most recently as its deputy project manager, before retiring in July of 2022.

“The telescope tells us what the universe looked like when the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang. It is colloquially called ‘looking back in time.’ What does that mean? We don’t travel back in time,” Durning says. “Since the Big Bang, everything has been moving away from everything else as the universe expands. Some of the light emitted soon after the Big Bang is just catching up to us now. As it arrives at the telescope, it reflects the information from when it was emitted all those years ago.

“For example, it takes three seconds for moonlight to reach our eyes so we are seeing what the moon looked like three seconds ago. The light from the closest star, Alpha Centauri, takes four years to get to us so when you look at it you see what it looked like four years ago. The James Webb Space Telescope can see what the universe looked like at the beginning because of its sensitivity.”

John Durning stands in front of one of the James Webb Telescope’s mirrors.

Durning stands in front of one of the James Webb Telescope’s 18 mirrors while engineers and technicians examine some of its parts.

The Webb Telescope has several instruments on board that do different things with the light it captures. Imagers produce the iconic pictures, while spectrographs determine the chemical composition of the incoming light. Using the combination of images and an understanding of the chemicals and other elements surrounding the exoplanets (any planet beyond our solar system) and galaxies the telescope discovers, engineers and scientists at NASA can infer the dynamics and history of those distance objects, albeit millions or billions of years ago.

“For example, the presence of methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere usually indicates a biological process, and could mean life was present back in the day. What kind of life we cannot say, but life nonetheless,” says Durning.

UB and its lasting impact

Durning grew up in Long Island, New York, an area with a rich history of aviation milestones, including the birthplace of NASA’s first lunar modules. As a high school student, he excelled in math and physics, and went on to earn an associate degree in engineering from nearby Nassau Community College. After working for a year with a civil engineering company, he enrolled at UB.

“I received a great education at UB and established some great connections. I learned how to approach complex problems, which is a skill that has been invaluable to me in the workplace.”

As a student at UB, Durning took advantage of the collaborative environment among students and faculty members. He credits the university with preparing him for a career with NASA.

“I picked UB because of resources. It was what I could afford, and the education was excellent—on par with any other institution. I had coworkers at NASA who were from Stanford and MIT. UB was more than capable of producing engineers,” Durning says.

Durning’s experience at UB proved to be lasting. He met his wife Patricia, an occupational therapy major, while the two were students.

Members of the James Webb Telescope team in front of the telescope’s tennis court-sized sunshield.

Durning (left) and other members of the James Webb Telescope team in front of the telescope’s tennis court-sized sunshield.


After graduation, Durning worked for the U.S. Navy as an engineer in Maryland. He enrolled at George Washington University and learned of an opportunity to follow a life-long passion.

“I had always been interested in NASA,” Durning says. “Growing up on the island, you’d look up into the sky at night, but you couldn’t see many stars because of the city. I was always interested in adventure, exploring and seeing the bigger picture.”

Durning applied for a job with NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center and worked as the instrument manager for the gamma ray spectrometer on the Mars Observer Mission up until its launch in 1992. In this role, Durning managed the instrument that took gamma ray measurements from Mars to understand the planet’s surface. Durning then joined the earth sciences team and served as deputy observatory manager for the EOS Aqua project. After his time with the observatory, Durning served as the mission manager on the Zephyr Wind Lidar mission, and in leadership roles on several different missions. At each step of his career, Durning’s role became more managerial, and while each position brought its own set of challenges, there were some similarities.

“No two days were the same and there were lots of new challenges. As an instrument manager, I would work with the people who were actually turning the wrench,” Durning says. “When a problem came up, we would meet with the team directly and develop a solution. As deputy project manager with the James Webb Telescope, if a challenge arose, we would approach the problems the same way, only this time, the team was much larger. We had thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians from all over the country and Canada and Europe working on Webb. The work was incredibly rewarding.”

Durning joined the James Webb Telescope mission in 2006, after work had been underway for about five years, but the next 16 years would prove pivotal for the project’s potential discoveries.

Two men fist bump in a space control room.

Engineers celebrated at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore after the James Webb Space Telescope's mirrors finished unfolding. Photograph: Bill Ingalls/NASA.

How the James Webb Telescope answers fundamental questions

“The Hubble Telescope provided fundamental discoveries in 1992, but even then, scientists knew that we couldn’t look back into the cosmos with visible frequency—we needed to work with infrared frequency,” Durning says.

NASA began generating what the Webb project would look like in the 1990s, and the organization was focused on using infrared frequency. According to Durning, this presented several challenges, but two were paramount: the telescope needed to be as cold as possible and as big as possible. Whatever device was going to be looking back into space needed to be as close to absolute zero as possible, and it needed to stay cool despite its movement throughout space. The telescope needed to be deployed some place where it would be thermally stable.

Scientists identified L2, the second Lagrangian point, as an ideal location to deploy the James Webb Telescope. Lagrange points are positions in space where the gravitational pull of various orbiting masses (the sun, Jupiter, moon, etc.) cancel out and an object can maintain an orbit there. This second Lagrangian point would provide the telescope with a thermal environment stable enough to use infrared frequency through its near infrared cameras. The telescope’s instruments, including the spectrographs and near infrared cameras, analyze chemical compounds. These devices help the telescope answer the questions: Are we alone and how did we come to be?

“We can see how the universe evolved and the conditions that made that possible,” Durning says. “We can look at other places in the universe and see if this same evolution is happening.”

According to Durning, discoveries form the Webb Telescope project are already impacting our understanding of space, and that impact could be exponential.

“Ninety percent of the universe is unseeable, but it’s based on the 10% of the universe that we can see. The older galaxies we see now seem more complex. It could rewrite our current understanding and models,” Durning says. “We had 18 segments of the telescope looking in one direction. We pointed everything at a star and needed to allow 10 minutes for alignment. We did this with two bright stars, and behind each of them, we saw hundreds of galaxies,” Durning says. “We were surprised. How many possible other Earths and planets are there? We didn’t expect to see these galaxies while aligning the telescope since we were only looking at the stars for a relatively brief time and the stars were not located in a particularly scientifically significant location in the sky. There is so much more out there.”

John During standing in room behind table.

During in one of NASA’s Mission Control Center conference rooms.

Career honors and recognitions

Durning has received a number of awards during his career with NASA. He received the Special Act or Service Awards for outstanding leadership in 1992, 1995, 1996 and 2010. He also received Performance Awards in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, and in the years from 2001 to 2009.

More recently, he was honored by UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with its Engineer of the Year Award, which is given each year to recognize a school alumnus or closely affiliated person with distinguishing activities in alumni, community, business and/or professional affairs.

These days, Durning and his wife Patricia are renovating a 100-year-old house just outside of Binghamton, New York. In his retirement, Durning looks forward to traveling and spending time with his family.