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Michael McElwain

Michael McElwain is the James Webb Space Telescope's Observatory Scientist. Michael held the deputy Observatory Scientist position for two years before stepping into this role in 2016. As the NASA observatory project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, McElwain ensures the observatory components meet the science performance requirements. On a daily basis, he works on observatory-level issues such as mirror performance, wavefront sensing, commissioning activities, and the characterization of observatory stray light and thermal performance.


From the start, he was always curious about how things work and was inspired by our place in space. In college he studied astrophysics and physics at the University of Pennsylvania, while also playing on the soccer team for the Quakers. During graduate school at UCLA, he was a lead graduate student on the Keck OSIRIS integral field spectrograph team. Afterwards he accepted a postdoctoral position at Princeton University. As a postdoc, McElwain was a lead scientist on the Subaru Telescope's SEEDS (Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru) survey that discovered two new exoplanets with direct imaging. He also designed a high contrast integral field spectrograph called CHARIS for the Subaru Telescope. This instrument is being built at Princeton and is scheduled to receive first light in the Spring of 2016. Currently, he's leading the development of a prototype integral field spectrograph for the WFIRST Coronagraph that may follow Webb. This instrument, called the prototype imaging spectrograph for coronagraphic exoplanet studies (PISCES), will be integrated with the High Contrast Imaging Testbed (HCIT) at JPL in the Spring of 2016 as part of the WFIRST Coronagraph technology development program.

Working on Webb, McElwain is inspired by the discovery capabilities of new missions, particularly in exoplanets. "We've learned so much about exoplanets over the past 20 years, and it's clear that future missions like Webb will enable observations that provide insights to planet formation, evolution, and atmospheres, " said McElwain. He is interested to see the transiting exoplanet and high contrast imaging science that is enabled by Webb. McElwain enjoys working with teams of scientists and engineers to piece together this transformative observatory.

In his free time, he enjoys running, playing soccer on the Goddard purple team, golfing, traveling, and trying new cuisines. He is an avid traveller and over the past few years he's visited Maine, Puerto Rico, Belize, Hawaii, French Polynesia, Japan, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.