I am an astronomer who writes computer programs to control the exposures taken by the
science instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope; my primary responsibility is for the
High Resolution Spectrograph, although most of my time these days is occupied by getting
ready for the next servicing mission. The scientists who want the pictures or spectra
request the details of their exposures (exposure time, filter, instrument, type of
exposure), and after their request is processed through some other computer programs,
the programs I work with create the second-by-second list of commands needed to actually
collect the data for them. I'm literally responsible for opening the shutter!
The most fun part of my job consists of puzzle solving. When something goes wrong with
an exposure, part of my job is to track down the problem as quickly as possible and
determine how to fix it. Sometimes the problems are with the equipment on the Hubble,
and the trick is to find a way to work around the failure. Other times the error is in
the programs I write, and I have to find and correct the problem so the failure doesn't
happen again (sort of like doing a math problem wrong on your homework, and the teacher
makes you do it again to get it right!). All of this activity is done while working with
other people (experts in their own areas of responsibilities) to make sure that any
changes I make don't cause other problems later; working as a team is very important
My interest in astronomy began when I was about 12 years old and living outside of
Dallas, Texas - I fell in love with the stars while camping with the Boy Scouts and I
worked toward becoming an astronomer through junior high school, high school, college,
and graduate school. All told, I spent 24 years in school to become an astronomer.
Because of my interest in astronomy, I concentrated on math and science during high
school. I read every book on astronomy that I could get my hands on, even some college
textbooks. From a practical standpoint, I spent many nights outside looking at the stars,
learning the constellations and finding interesting things to look at with my telescope
(like the planets!).
Probably the most important activity I undertook as a young person was to build my own
telescope while in high school - I had to build it because I couldn't afford to buy a
larger one than I already had. This taught me about telescope design, optical fabrication
and testing, mechanical skills, how to budget money(!), and a bunch of other things which
have been useful to me over the years. The best part of the project was that I was able
to enjoy using a fine optical instrument which I made with my own two hands - I still own
the telescope, although I have made some changes to it since it was first completed.
Believe it or not, most people I came in contact with tried to discourage me from
pursuing a career in astronomy. They were probably correct, since I don't actually do
much astronomy as part of my work! There is not a lot of money to be made in astronomy,
and like many other career choices it requires much dedication and hard work to train for
it and to be successful at it. The number of jobs available where you can really do
astronomy is very small, and the competition for them is extremely fierce. That's why
many astronomers have jobs more like mine: they work in a technical field using skills
and knowledge they gained from studying astronomy, but do very little astronomy as part
of their job.
However, astronomy can be a very rewarding hobby for anyone who is interested. Stars
and planets are available for anyone to enjoy, and many people spend their evenings,
weekends, and vacations observing from wherever they happen to be. Some amateur
astronomers actually set up research programs and make valuable contributions to the
professional astronomers activities - there aren't many sciences where that is the case!
I'm married (in fact, my wife, Sylvia, works on Hubble and is participating in the
Live from Hubble project, too!) and have no children. We do, however, have three ferrets
as pets (they're great!), and they keep us busy in our spare time. I love to read
(science fiction and spy novels, mostly) and play computer games when I'm not playing
with the ferrets.