My Field Journals
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 around here!
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
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.