Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: October 2009


October 16, 2009 by Mario Livio

rdoxsey-smallI have always argued that no person is truly irreplaceable. I still believe that to be the case. However, my colleague and friend Rodger Doxsey came probably as close as anyone ever could to being irreplaceable. I know of no one who had a deeper and more thorough understanding of the workings of the Hubble Space Telescope than Rodger. Rodger passed away on October 13, 2009, at the age of 62.

Usually when we retire a computer, we make sure that all the information on it is stored elsewhere. Unfortunately we cannot do the same with the human brain.

For the past two decades, Rodger was driven by one passion – the desire to make the Hubble Space Telescope the most productive scientific instrument ever.

Here is a description by another Hubble pioneer, John Bahcall, of the birth of the “Hubble Space Telescope Snapshot Program,” a wonderful example of one of Rodger’s many brainchildren:

“The Snapshot program originated in a lunchtime conversation between Rodger Doxsey and myself in the STScI cafeteria sometime in the spring of 1989. We were both late to lunch and probably were the only people in the cafeteria. The principal topic of conversation was the expected low observing efficiency of the HST. Rodger described the extraordinary difficulty in making a schedule that would use a reasonable percentage of the available time for science observations. Slewing was slow and changing instruments or modes of observing was time-consuming. Also, the scheduling software that existed in 1989 was not very powerful.

I asked Rodger, without thinking very carefully about what I was saying, if it would be possible for the software he was developing to insert new objects in the holes in the schedule. I wondered aloud if one could improve the efficiency by choosing new objects, close to the directions of the scheduled targets, from a previously prepared list of interesting objects scattered over the sky. I remember that Rodger suddenly became very quiet, thought about the question, and finally replied something like: ‘In principle, it is possible.’ The Snapshot program was born at that lunch.”

Very few people know of a ritual Rodger and I have developed over the years. During the first servicing mission and subsequent observatory verification, Rodger and I followed all the tests for the instruments at the Institute. After the performance test of each instrument, we shook hands ceremoniously. This became somewhat of a superstition, and consequently, in all the following servicing missions we continued with the same ritual. During SM4, Rodger was already too weak to attend all the activities continuously. We did meet, however, after the completion of SM4, and performed the ritualistic handshake to celebrate all the instruments.

Goodbye friend. To me, you are irreplaceable.