Live From...the Stratosphere
Tom McMahon Biography


Name: Tom McMahon

Position: Instrumentation engineer

I am a member of the Far Infrared Research Group of the University of Chicago. I have flown on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) for over 10 years both as a staff member (Tracker Operator,) and now as a researcher. I have a unique position in the research team. It is my responsibility to make sure that the Far Infrared Photometer we use to observe astronomical objects is functioning properly.

The photometer is a very complicated machine. Months before we fly on the Kuiper we start testing and characterizing each of the 60 detectors. We do this so that we will understand how the photometer is working during the research flight. I also take an active role in the observations during the flights as well as help analyze the images we take in the air

The Kuiper observations take up about 1/3 of my time over a single year. I spend the remainder designing and constructing other astronomical instruments and the software we use to run them. Presently, I am developing software for experiments to be used at the South Pole. In January of 1996 I will travel to the South Pole to install the experiment. I am really looking forward to the trip!

I knew that I wanted to have a career in Astronomy since I was a freshman in high school. I have been hooked on the subject ever since. I started attending Astronomy courses a nearby University while still in high school. I received a BS in Physics from California State University, Sonoma.

Just before I graduated from college, I saw a job listing for a Tracker Operator on the Kuiper Observatory. This sounded like a really cool job so I applied. Well, I got the job and my career in Astronomy was launched! I held that position for two years. During that time I flew on over 100 flights on the Kuiper and traveled to places like Hawaii, New Zealand and Samoa. WOW! This was great, but it was hard work, long hours and many sleepless nights.

During my years as a Tracker Operator I developed am intense curiosity and desire to become involved with the instruments used in Astronomy. I have always loved to build things or take them apart. I would hang out with the Astronomers flying on the Kuiper and ask then all sorts of question about how their instruments worked. I was motivated to return to school for a Master's degree in Instrumentation Physics. After I finished my Master's degree I returned to Ames Research Center. There I built the Mid-Infrared Spectrometer (MIRS) with Tom Roellig. This instrument was flown on a Japanese satellite earlier this year. Working on the MIRS was great since I was one of two people who designed, tested and delivered the instrument to Japan. I was ecstatic when I heard the news that the MIRS was working in space.

In 1993 I moved to Yerkes Observatory to work with the researchers there. I returned to fly on the Kuiper in May of that year. Coming back to the observatory as an Astronomer was unusual. I was the first and only person to be both a member of the Kuiper staff and then a member of a science team.

I really like what I do. I do not think of it as a job but as a career. I enjoy working with people who are motivated and enthusiastic about what they do. There is a creative side to my work that I find enormously rewarding. I really enjoy working to find solutions to problems, whether they be in the design of an instrument or finding a software bug. I enjoy working with electronics and computers. I love to make things move! There is nothing as exciting as seeing a motor move a telescope by the computer software that I wrote!

Another great aspect of what I do is traveling around the world. As I mentioned above I will be traveling to the South Pole early next year. This will be an adventure that few in the world will be able to experience. There is a downside to the travel and that is being away from my family for long periods of time, months at a stretch. This year alone I will have spent more that 3 months away from my home. During those months the scientific rewards have been great but they come at the price.

My education is the most important tool I had to achieve my position as a scientist. I had to work hard to be where I am today. That is the same for all the people who are associated with the Kuiper program. I did not always have an easy time in school. However, I did stick with it through the tough parts when it would have been more easy to quit. I found that if a goal means a lot to you, there is always a way to achieve that goal. You just have to work on it.

There are many people that have influenced me greatly over the years. First of all, there are my mentors in College. Without their influence I would not be where I am today. There are also the scientists that I have worked with over the years. They continuously ignite my interest in the field of astronomy. They also provide me with interesting projects to work on. The other people that have influenced me greatly are the teachers and students that I have met through my work on the Kuiper. They are so enthusiastic about the science and how the science is done that I cannot help but be infected with the same enthusiasm. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be working in such an interesting subject.

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