Max MutchlerMy Field Journals
I have been working here at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) since around the time when the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched into orbit back in 1990. I work mainly on the "front end" of telescope operations here. Astronomers who want to use HST must submit a proposal describing what they'd like to do. We get hundreds of proposals each year, but there is only enough time to do about 1/3 of them. So the proposals must be reviewed by a panel of astronomers that will decide which ones should be done -- it's a very competitive process. As a Program Coordinator, my job is to help the approved astronomers create a detailed observing program for HST.
Since the telescope is in space, "using it" is more like writing a computer program than operating a telescope (i.e. it is not at all like going to a mountaintop observatory at night). The astronomers who "use" the telescope don't usually come here to operate the telescope themselves. Instead, they have a contact person here at the Institute (like me) who works closely with them to write an observing program that will achieve the scientific goals that they described in their initial proposal. Then I go to work to make it happen -- working out all the technical bugs and getting the program on the observing schedule. We schedule the telescope's activities several weeks in advance so we can pack each orbit as efficiently as possible -- very important for an expensive mission like HST.
I work with dozens of astronomers from all over the world each year to help them use HST. My correspondence with them is mostly through e-mail. Sometimes it strikes me that I've worked for years with so many astronomers, many of whom I've never met in person, and with a telescope that I have never seen or touched (except for in pictures or on TV, etc). Space astronomy has an intangibility about it that makes it a very different business than "traditional" ground-based astronomy.
The best thing about my job is the privilege and thrill of working on the most important astronomical project of the day. I consequently get to work with some of the best scientists in the world on some of the most profound questions that humans have ever asked. Although I am not a student anymore, I am still learning more and more about the universe all the time while working here. I have been able to indulge my curiosity and continue developing my understanding of the universe we live in. I REALLY enjoy that!
In my spare time, I am also involved in educational outreach. My interest in astronomy and space began when I was in 4th grade growing up in Racine, Wisconsin. I remember how much it meant to me when someone from NASA or a scientist would visit my school. I loved it, and it surely had an impact on my future. So I take special joy (and a sense of responsibility) in returning the favor: I give many presentations about astronomy at schools, museums, and astronomy clubs. I also continue to enjoy astronomy as a hobby: I can sometimes be found "stargazing" in my backyard with a small telescope, and inviting my neighbors to take a peek. People who've never looked through a telesope before are often very suprised at how much you can see even with a small telescope or binoculars -- some don't believe what they are seeing at first!
I have always enjoyed reading astronomy books, journals, magazines, and watching any TV shows or movies about astronomy and space. I have also visited many science museums, planetariums, NASA centers, and observatories over the years. Until I reached college, I never had an opportunity to take an astronomy class. In high school I took all the math and science classes I could, to prepare for college. I didn't have ANY trouble choosing a major once I got to college!
This is my first job since graduating with a Master's degree in 1990. I studied physics, astronomy, and space sciences in college (in Wisconsin and Florida). As a college student, I worked in a plasma physics lab, a robotic telescope lab, and I spent some time at the Kennedy Space Center. I was thrilled to be there when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched (just 2 weeks after I was offered a job here at the Institute!). If, as a 4th grader in a small town in Wisconsin, I could have looked into the future and seen myself working on the Hubble Space Telescope project, I don't think I would have believed it -- I didn't know anyone who was involved in anything like this. But I've learned that if you follow your heartfelt interests, you will go to many interesting and unexpected places. So if you are a young student, I encourage you to follow the advice of Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan (this is one of my favorite quotes): "I urge you to dream. I did, and one day I found myself standing on the surface of the Moon."
P.S. Yes, I do like many things other than astronomy: my wife and 4-month-old daughter, theater, wearing my cheesehead hat while watching sports (Wisconsin sports fans will understand this), guitar, camping/hiking, chocolate, Indian food, bicycling, community service, The Simpsons....