I am an Operations Astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute employed by the
Computer Sciences Corporation, a subcontractor to the Associated Universities for
Research in Astronomy. I have been working on the Hubble project for 11 years now after
leaving my home in warm and sunny California.
Although I have worked on many tasks to support the operations of the Hubble ground
system, I am now a Contact Scientist assigned to the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph
(GHRS) team. In a nutshell, the Contact Scientist acts as the scientific liaison with
astronomers proposing to use HST and as the scientific interface between the astronomer
and the Program Coordinators, who will do the bulk of the work preparing the astronomers
proposal for execution on board the spacecraft.
The Contact Scientist supports the astronomer from beginning to end, that is, from the
time he/she is designing the proposal to reducing the data received. We begin by reading
all the proposals assigned to us to learn what science the astronomer is planning to do.
Then we verify the feasibility of what has been proposed; can it be done or not, and if
so, does the way the astronomer describe what he/she wants to do make sense. We have to
make sure the instrument is being used properly, that exposure times are adequate to
acquire the object, and that the science desired is obtained accurately and efficiently.
During the initial phase of proposal preparation by the astronomer, we answer lots of
questions and try to help the astronomer as much as possible. After the proposal has been
completed by the astronomer and submitted to the STScI, the PC begins working on the
proposal to get it transformed into the language needed by the spacecraft computers to
take the data. We help resolve any problems we can during this phase and act as the
astronomer's advocate if any changes are needed. We try to keep a close watch on the
proposals throughout, including when proposals are scheduled for execution.
When the exposures from the proposal are completed, we then expect to help the
astronomer, if necessary, in arranging trips to the Institute to reduce the data,
and assist in providing the personnel or expertise to help analyze the data.
This is a lot to do. But that's not all. We also have tasks in addition to those
assisting the astronomer. My primary task is as Data Quality Assessment Coordinator for
the GHRS team. I am preparing procedures for other Contact Scientists and team members
to use in verifying the quality of data taken by the GHRS, and to identify any problems
which the astronomer would need to know about. Ultimately, information learned during
this process will be archived in a database available to astronomers from around the
world for years to come.
And finally, somewhere along the way, when time is available, I try to do some
research on my own projects and publish papers when I can. Despite the problems of
finding time for research, I have published about 40 scientific papers during my
I guess I've always wanted to be an astronomer. Oh, there were one or two thoughts
about studying fossils or the weather, but astronomy was my greatest interest. My parents
say I used to go out into the backyard with my star charts and flashlight and spend hours
looking at the stars. What I do remember is that I decided I was going to become an
astronomer when I was about 7 years old.
As a kid, my parents saw to it that I was able to get the basic astronomy books and
guides appropriate to my age at the time. When I entered high school, I took the college
preparatory courses. I went to a small school in the desert of Southern California near
the Salton Sea. There were only 52 students in my high school graduating class. Even
though an astronomy course wasn't available, the physics teacher did let us drag out the
12-in reflector telescope for viewing in the evenings. I never had a telescope of my own,
partly because they were expensive, and partly because I was able to borrow the 4-in
refractor from the school or use the 12-in.
Of course, when I got to college, everything was geared toward getting a degree in
astronomy. I started out at the local Junior College where I got my AA degree, then
transferred to San Diego State University, where I got both my Bachelor of Science and
Masters Degree. I took a leave of absence for two years to work at Mt. Wilson and Palomar
Observatories with Allan Sandage on a project to support the Uhuru X-ray satellite, then
returned to SDSU to finish my degree, do a little teaching, and lots of research.
After graduating, I got a job a Mt. Wilson Observatory operating the 60-in and 100-in
telescopes and eventually doubled as an observer. I also did a lot of observing on my own
projects which the observatory supported, observing as much as 60-80 nights per year.
While at Mt. Wilson, I also wrote bi-weekly astronomy articles for my home town newspaper,
and served as a Trustee and Chairman of several committees of the Mt. Wilson Observatory
Association. I stayed at Mt. Wilson for 10 years, and would have stayed longer but they
closed it down. That's when I got the job with Computer Sciences Corporation working with
the real-time support and planning and scheduling (SPSS)for the Hubble Space Telescope.
I was one of the first hired as a Science Operations Specialist in 1985, when we
thought we were only one year from launch. A year later, the Space Shuttle Challenger
blew up. None of us knew what would happen, but we stuck with it preparing our procedures
and training for the 'real thing'. I became an Operations Astronomer in 1990 and lead
for the Proposal Preparation Section and Transformation software Task Leader for SPSS.
Now I am a Contact Scientist with the GHRS team.
Lots of things have changed since I was in school and I would probably advise a
budding astronomer to do it a bit differently now. I don't think it's necessary to get a
Bachelor's degree in astronomy. In fact, it would be better to major in physics, getting
a good foundation in the basics first, and perhaps minor in mathematics or computer
sciences. If possible, I would even advise the student to take electronic design and
shop classes. One thing I discovered while at Mt. Wilson Observatory was that many of
the Cal Tech students designed and built their own equipment for doing research in
astronomy. That shop experience would have been very valuable for me. Just knowing
astronomy and what it's all about isn't really enough any more. You also need to know
how to do it, or devise ways of doing it better. Today, a big part of the job of
supporting astronomy includes the scientific knowledge as well as experience with
computers, data analysis, and instrument design.
Over the years I've had several people who influenced me to reach my goal of becoming
an astronomer. My parents were, of course, the first. Ever since I showed an interest,
they provided constant encouragement, and never let me get too 'down' when things weren't
going that well. I always had difficulty reading due to problems with my eyes, so they
read to me when my eyes would get tired and I couldn't read any more myself. My eyes are
ok now, but I wasn't going to let that problem stop me. My parents were there to help me
through college too. I soon got to the point they couldn't help with my course work or
research, but they continued to help with apartments, school expenses, and words of
In high school, my math and physics teachers, Mr. Archbold and Mr. Caswell, constantly
pushed me to do better. When I would go home I would also try to go see them. Mr. Caswell
has passed on, but I still try to go see Mr. Archbold since we have remained friends for
over 30 years. During my college years, the chairman of the astronomy department at San
Diego State University, Burt Nelson, was perhaps the most influential in my early years
of learning to do real observational astronomy. And later, Allan Sandage became a great
influence in my career.
I am married and have one son. My wife works right across the street at Johns Hopkins
University and is taking classes there to finish her college degree. I am taking classes
again too with an emphasis in computer sciences. Things change. You have to keep up and
learn new things. My son is now working for a computer company out in Arizona after
having spent several years in the army.
My father and mother are retired now. Although my father didn't have the opportunity
to get much schooling, he was able to learn a lot in his life. He has done all sorts of
amazing things, including working as a cowboy hearding cattle, a reserve deputy sheriff,
farming, building houses, serving as a member of the city planning commision, and as
Superintendent of Maintenance and Grounds for the local school district.
After working for the railroad and farming with my dad, my mother began working as a
teacher of 1st and 2nd grade, then taught Spanish and English as a Second Language for
6th graders, and eventually became the Principal of the Elementary school. At retirement,
she even had the credentials to become Superintendent of the School District. She has
also been very active as choir director and organist for the Community Church for more
than 40 years.
When my wife and I are not in school or working, we like to go antiquing. You find all
kinds of interesting things, even some of the things I used to see or use when I was a
kid. But I'm not an antique, not yet anyway.