Some background: In late December the astronomers who got time on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) this year were given the good news. Pretty soon they received lots of fat manuals telling them how to turn their idea (we call this the Phase I Proposal) into something the telescope can understand (we call this the Phase II Proposal). It can be a confusing and tedious process to "program" HST. Part of my job (along with 14 other PCs) is to be "technical support" for the observers as they plan their observations.
Why is it so complicated to use the HST? For one thing, there are lots of instruments and ways to use the instruments. But this is true of ground based observatories as well. What's really hard about using HST is that you have to get it all right, ahead of time, and then just hope it all works - no changing your mind half way through. Have you ever heard people complain about how hard it is to program their VCR? Many times it's because they don't do it very often and when they go on vacation they decide to record a couple of favorite shows. Then they get home and find out that they recorded "Barney and Friends" instead of 60 Minutes! You can think of HST as a huge, complicated VCR. All the observations have to be programmed ahead of time just like you have to tell the VCR which date, time, and channel to record.
So you might be wondering, why do all the Phase II Proposals have to have the same deadline; aren't they going to be spread out over the year? Good question. Lots of observers ask us that very same question. You can't do most observations any old time. In order to figure out when to do the observations, we have to know what they are like. Then we take all the observations and make a year long plan.
So enough background. What's it like right now? Well I have 34 observers assigned to me and the deadline is coming. Astronomers are only human and most put off the task of making the Phase II Proposal until just before the deadline (just like I used to put off starting on term papers). So every day I am bombarded with email and phone calls. Sometimes it seems like I just can't type fast enough.
Sometimes the questions are easy, which means that the information was probably right in the manuals. But lots of people don't have the time to read the manuals carefully. Sometimes the questions are more scientific than technical and I have to refer the observer to their Contact Scientist (CS). The CSs are our partners in helping the observers. Sometimes the questions are hard. Many times I'll have to get help from someone else that knows more about the issue than me. The hard questions are generally the interesting questions, but it's difficult to concentrate on a well reasoned response when the phone keeps ringing and the email keeps piling up. Here is an example interaction I've had recently with a PI. (PI stands for Principle Investigator - that what we call the observers.)
I have one PI who is in Cape Town South Africa. (I actually think it is pretty cool to be exchanging email with someone there. It's only been a few years since South Africa was welcomed back into the world community.) He has had so many problems. First he didn't get his documentation. He said the regular mail takes as much as 6 weeks to get there. I told him that the documentation was available on the World Wide Web. So he downloaded the postscript file and tried to print it out - but the printer he had didn't have the fonts that the document contained!
So then a PI here in Maryland wrote to me and asked for an extension on his deadline. It so happens that he is a government employee and was furloughed for that long period of time around the holidays. Then we had a blizzard that shut everything down for a week. When he finally got back, he only had a few days before he had to leave for a conference in ... South Africa! So I wrote right back and said he could have the extension on one condition. He had to take his documentation with him to the conference and give it to my other PI. He was glad to help (and glad to get the extension).
Now the PI in South Africa had the books he needed and he tried to download and install the software that we give them to help plan their observations (this software is called RPS2 for Remote Proposal Submission 2). Apparently their Internet connections are not very good and the file that contains the software is very large. The file would start transferring and inevitably the connection would be lost after a hour or so and he would have to start all over again. When he finally succeeded the software acted strangely.
So I had him email me the draft of his Phase II Proposal. This is just a short file that contains instructions for the telescope written in a special language just for HST. I processed the proposal myself with RPS2 and had no problems. Then I emailed him the output products from RPS2. This isn't a very quick method for checking his work, but it helped him get started. We couldn't do this too many times in a day though because he is in a time zone 6 hours earlier than I am, so our work days do not overlap by much.
Then he started to ask questions about his observation. He asked about how often he should take wavelength calibration spectra. I guessed about once an orbit, but checked with his Contact Scientist just to be sure. Then he told me that his observation is of a couple of stars that rotate around each other very fast (every 219 minutes!) and he needs to observe them when they are aligned in a particular way. I asked another PC who had helped someone do this, and then I gave him instructions on how to specify that in his Phase II Proposal.
The draft that he just sent me is looking pretty close to being done. It's taken a long time for him to work out his observations, and I'm sure he's glad to be almost done. It must have been frustrating for him at times. I know I've learned some things for next time. For instance, we should probably have the option for PIs in remote locations to get the software on a disk instead of requiring them to get the software over the Internet.
Well it's late and time for me to go home. Things have been so hectic recently that I have been working late some nights. I think it will really pay off in the long run because the Phase II Proposals will have fewer mistakes in them. These mistakes could cause us to plan to schedule an observation at the wrong time of year. December would be a bad time to learn that one of the observations should have been scheduled in June. Especially bad because most of the observations I am responsible for are using the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph (GHRS) which is scheduled to be removed in the next Servicing Mission in February 1997 to make way for a new instrument.