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Conrad Wells with a view of the telescope’s mirror array in the vertical position


Recently I met a gentleman in my church who inquired about my accent. We found that we had something in common: Estonian heritage and work in space exploration. He introduced himself as Conrad Wells. His aunt was Melissa Wells, who served as the US ambassador to Estonia from 1998 to 1999. Melissa was of Estonian descent, and the daughter of a well know prewar singer Milizia Korjus.


Conrad Wells is the deputy optical test director for Harris Corporation. His current assignment is to test the James Webb Space Telescope in preparation for its launch next year. The test is being conducted at the Johnson Space Center from where I retired 20 years ago. When he offered to conduct a tour of the test facility I joined the group enthusiastically.


This NASA development center houses a unique test chamber which can accommodate the whole 24-foot wide telescope’s mirror array. The chamber will be used to create a total vacuum with a near absolute zero temperature thus simulating the conditions of deep space. The telescope will be launched into an orbit one million miles from earth. It will deploy a shade to shield the mirrors from the Sun’s light. Thus shielded, this sensitive telescope can peer into the darkness of the cosmos, hoping to capture images of the earliest galaxies of our universe after its creation 13.4 billion years ago.



James Webb Space Telescope in a vacuum chamber. Note the size of the engineers in white clean-room suits. Photos by author


Those readers who remember the fiasco with the initial launch of the Hubble telescope 20 years ago will realize the importance of Conrad’s testing of the mirrors of the telescope. These must hold their position within a hair’s thickness.


Friendships can be made in many different ways. Recently I joined a group to visit a historic house not far from Houston. By Texas standards houses from early 1900’s are historic. It was built by a rich lumber baron and was furnished in a way that reminded me of something that I had seen before. The newly rich herein Texas brought furniture and culture form Europe to show off their opulence.


When our guide pointed out a chamber pot, I exclaimed that I had one similar to that when I grew up. He inquired where, and when I told him where I was born he gave me a big hug. This is not commonly done in Texas by men! It turned out that he liked Estonia and knew its history and culture, though he had never travelled there. He had even read Raun’s definitive book on us: “Estonia and the Estonians” though he commented that the book was very ‘dry’. I had to agree with that assessment.


After the trip we exchanged emails. He shared with me a poem that he had written about Tallinn. He had sent it to the Estonian Embassy in Washington where it was posted on its web page with the following comment:


“The Embassy received yesterday, a very nice e-mail from Mr. Arthur Martinson from Washington D.C. with a poem that he wrote about Tallinn, our capital. Thank you very much, Mr. Martinson, for this nice surprise.”

The poem follows:


Tallinn sestina - an emigration of the heart
By Arthur Martinson


O, how I wish that She was my city!

For seven hundred years another name

Graced the maps of earth, but there's no pity

Should be felt: for within the graceful frame

Of sea and of snow, my Tallinn, my own,

Did stand and shine, majestic yet alone.

But how can I claim that She is alone?

I have never travelled to the city

That I, one day, would like to call my own.

What right do I have to pronounce Her name

Of Kalevan or Reval? In what frame

Do I deserve to be shown Her pity?

For it is not love I seek but pity;

Yes, the kahju that my Tallinn alone

Can bestow upon my alien frame!

For some five thousand years has my city

Been both free and not free in Her great name:

She will bless those She knows to be Her own!

Denmark, Sweden, and Russia would not own

Her forever! The Heavens did pity

Her children, and did declare that Her name

Would defeat tyranny and war! Alone

In my heart and mind, Saint Victor's city,

Protect and keep us in Your holy frame!

I know She rises from a Baltic frame

Among states that were also not their own --

Dark days of atomic threat! No city

Other than Tallinn will I beg, "Pity!

For this one who is both lone and alone

Seeks shelter in Your History and Name."

Livonia, Hansa: whatever name

Of the larger land can only but frame

She who is in my heart and mind alone;

Like a poet who knows he does not own

What he creates, may this Tallinn pity

This stirring of words to Her, my city.

Let me live in Her name, Her very own!

Let Old Thomas frame Her sense of pity!

I'll come alone: accept me, O, city!


Here in Houston on Jaanipäev I too am in my imagination in Tallinn and walking alone in the old-town, on its the cobblestone streets, as I have done many times before. I always wonder what the fortification walls and the ancient houses tell me.


Arved Plaks


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