Citing "his outstanding, unselfish dedication to making the Hubble Space Telescope one of the most scientifically productive telescopes of all time," the American Astronomical Society (AAS) announced that Dr. Rodger Doxsey of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., will receive the 2004 George Van Biesbroeck Prize.
The prize "honors a living individual for long-term extraordinary or unselfish service to astronomy, often beyond the requirements of his or her paid position." The announcement was made last week at the AAS winter meeting in Atlanta, Ga. Doxsey is the second institute scientist to win the award. The late Barry Lasker garnered the prize in 1999. The award is named for astronomer George Van Biesbroeck (1880-1974), who studied minor planets, comets, satellites, and double stars.
Doxsey, the head of the institute's Hubble Mission Office, said he was surprised at winning the award. So surprised, in fact, that he was vacationing in Sicily when a AAS official called him with the news.
"I appreciate the recognition of the astronomy community," said Doxsey, who oversees Hubble's science operations. "I really enjoy working with the group of people here that operate Hubble, with the engineers at NASA Goddard, and the scientists who use the telescope. There is an enormous group of people that makes Hubble work, and I am privileged to be part of that group, whose goal is getting the best science it can out of Hubble."
In its citation, the Van Biesbroeck Prize committee credited Doxsey with helping to make Hubble a success. "The scientific success of the Hubble Space Telescope owes much to his personal efforts over the past 22 years, including operational developments, efficiency innovations such as the Snapshot Program, as well as the resolution of innumerable problems and emergencies. His calm confidence and inspirational leadership over many long hours have earned him the respect and admiration of NASA space mission teams as well as the gratitude of the international scientific community."
Doxsey is one of the pioneers of the Hubble project. He arrived at the institute in 1981, nine years before Hubble began looking at the heavens. Riccardo Giacconi, then the institute director, and institute astronomer Ethan Schreier recruited the young astronomer to be the institute's Mission Operations Scientist. Doxsey was part of the science operations teams for the SAS-3 and HEAO-1 X-ray space observatories. The science operations for those missions were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Doxsey earned a doctorate in physics.
"When I came here 22 years ago, there were only 15 or 20 people. The institute was just getting started," Doxsey said. "My experience with the X-ray satellites helped in understanding how science operations work. But Hubble was different because it had much grander goals. It had to have the support of the entire scientific community."
But Hubble wasn't destined for a smooth ride during its early years in space. Just after launch, scientists discovered that the telescope's primary mirror was flawed. "When you launch any spacecraft there are always little things that you don't expect," Doxsey explained. "The mirror's aberration was a big thing, though. NASA and the institute were determined to figure out how to fix the problem. It was a very hectic time. In the meantime, we took the opportunity to learn a lot of lessons on how to run the telescope more efficiently. These lessons are still valuable for the telescope today."
An important moment for Doxsey occurred during the first servicing mission in 1993, when astronauts installed the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), which helped fix the aberration. "The most exciting moment of my Hubble career came when we watched the first WFPC2 images come down from the telescope," Doxsey said. "They were wonderful."
Institute Director Steven Beckwith credits Doxsey with helping astronomers use Hubble to make important scientific discoveries. "We often say that Rodger is the only living person who really understands how the Hubble Space Telescope works. He has worked unselfishly for 22 years to make Hubble the greatest scientific facility in the world, and I am delighted that the AAS has rewarded him with the Van Biesbroeck prize, a most appropriate award to someone who has given his life to enabling others to do great science. The world owes him their gratitude."
Doxsey is currently working on another challenging problem: how to operate the telescope on only two gyroscopes. The telescope operates on three gyroscopes and has three in reserve. But with the next servicing mission delayed due to the grounding of the shuttle fleet, NASA is concerned that Hubble may have only two working gyroscopes before astronauts make another house call.
"Our goal is to make the telescope as scientifically productive as we can," Doxsey said. "There are always challenges with this job. After 22 years, the job has never gotten old or has never been routine. And any time I see a science result or a pretty picture, I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that I played a role in making that happen."
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