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William Hathaway

My Field Journals


I am what is known as a Short Term Scheduler and an SMS Supervisor. Currently there are eight of us who construct weekly calendars of observations for the Hubble Space Telescope to perform. After the astronomers submit their requests for observations, our team will take perhaps 70 to 150 of these observation requests for each week and assemble them into the best order for the telescope to use. Using both computers and manual checking we account for the positions of the Sun, Moon, Earth, radiation belts, radio contacts and any special needs of the astronomers as the telescope flies around the earth every hour and a half. As observing time is precious we work to make the most efficient use of it that we can, all the while being sure that everything is done safely.

Once the calendar is built and completely checked for correctness, we use it to build the Science Mission Specification which is a large computer file which has all the detailed commands to turn and point the telescope, turn on the cameras and other instruments, make exposures of the targets, and sends the pictures and other science data back to earth. These commands are sent by radio link to the telescope starting each Sunday evening.

Between 1985 and the 1990 launch of the HST, I worked on preparing the ground system for operating it as we do now. This required much testing and development of the software and procedures.

I started my career in space astronomy operations with the International Ultraviolet Explorer, another telescope in Earth orbit which has been gathering scientific data about the stars since 1978. While there (from 1978 to 1985) I operated the telescope by a direct radio link from a control room with each astronomer sitting next to me telling which star he or she wanted to observe and for how long.

Even though a career like this did not exist until fairly recently, I knew I wanted to work in science operations in some way since high school or earlier. I was drawn to the limitless possibilities for exploration in the open sky. I prepared for the opportunity (without knowing exactly when or how it would come) by taking all the classes in science and mathematics that were available and by earning a college degree in Physics and a graduate degree in Astronomy and by reading every book on science and the workings of the world I could find.

The best thing is being able to touch computer keys in a specific and precise way and having those signals travel out from Earth to an immensely complicated machine in space which captures the light energy traveling from far distant bodies across the depths of space to reach Earth where we catch it, bring it down to Earth and decipher it, analyze it and make the lessons learned available to everyone who wants to learn about the Universe and our place in it. It is a feeling of immensely gratifying power used for the betterment of all. The least likeable thing about this job is having to live near a city with so many lights that make seeing the stars very difficult and having to commute through a city that has many social problems and many unhappy people who know little of the wonders all around them. Many of us here try to fix this by visiting local schools to help teach students about astronomy and space science.

Another good thing about this job is hearing the responses of the public to the many impressive pictures the telescope is making. There is also a lot of satisfaction of having met many technical challenges and overcome them. Ten years ago we lost a Shuttle crew who were taking a communication satellite that we needed for operations into orbit. As everyone knows, NASA and the country did continue after that.

We also overcame the well-publicized problem with the telescope mirror. One of the least likeable aspects of that was having to continually hear the erroneous public perception that the mirror problem made the telescope unusable. In fact, even with the abberation, the HST still performed better than any other telescope on earth and much valuable science was done even before the Servicing Mission.

As a kid I read every science or knowledge book or magazine I could find and often read through an encyclopedia I won in a contest. I tried to find as much as I could about any subject available. I found I could perform repetitive, detailed tasks involving lists of data and numbers and enjoyed controlling how things worked by understanding their functions and manipulating them in the right ways. In general I read non-fiction and science books and skipped fiction and made-up stories.

While I paid close attention to all my science and math teachers who knew their subjects, there was no particular one that influenced me in this field. I was excited about the early launches of the "Space Age" and listened intently to the radio (eventually TV) broadcasts of the first manned space launches. The final Apollo flights occurred about the time I graduated from college.

A little bit about my outside interests: While I have no children of my own I have some young friends, currently 11 and 7, who I visit when I can. The older one wants to be a paleontologist and we will soon be working on a kit I got him for his birthday which has fossil bones and reproductions of archeological artifacts imbedded in a plaster stone. Tomorrow I hope to work with the younger child in making crystals (rock candy) from sugar and water.

I also own several telescopes and cameras and have used them to make a video tape of a total solar eclipse. I hope to do this again in the Carribean in 1998. I also take many pictures of the many historical events taking place in Washington DC. Indeed I have so many other interests that there is never enough time to persue them all, though I try. I find the many connections to all sorts of people and kinds of interests on the computer Internet to be a wonderful new world to explore. When I was growing up, color TV was a novelty. Now millions of people can communicate directly with everyone else.

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