JWST Commanding Team Lead
Space Telescope Science Institute
Interview Date: August 2006
EDUCATIONBachelor's degree in mathematics at the State University of New York at Albany; PhD in astronomy at Penn State University.
BACKGROUNDVicki Balzano grew up in Long Island, NY. After obtaining her degrees, she taught astronomy for a year at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She became an operations astronomer for the Hubble Space Telescope in 1983, eventually becoming its commanding team lead, and became commanding team lead for JWST in 2000.
Vicki Balzano, like so many kids who grew up with thrill of NASA's early space exploration — Mercury's first Americans in space, the Apollo Moon landing — grew up wanting to be an astronaut.
Then reality set in. “I don't even like to camp," she said. “Let alone be stuck in a tin can in close quarters with five other people.”
So there had to be another way. Balzano gave teaching astronomy a shot, with no luck. “I'd rather operate the science instruments and have someone else analyze the data," she said. “I enjoy more making it happen.”
Today Balzano is JWST's commanding team lead. Her group has the responsibility of creating the software that commands the science operations of the telescope. Balzano designs programs that operate the science instruments on JWST and oversees the team that actually implements the designs.
When, in the future, a scientist asks for the telescope to look at a certain target, Balzano and her team will have created the standardized sequences of commands that cause the telescope to work. “We provide the communication between the ground and the spacecraft.”
It takes many, many software packages to operate a space telescope. “It’s extremely complicated, these large observatories. It’s mind-boggling, getting it all to work together,” said Balzano, who was previously the commanding team lead for the Hubble Space Telescope. “It’s a very complicated system, and I enjoy helping build it, simplifying it, making all the pieces fit together.”
It also provides that touch of wonder and adventure that the early dream of being an astronaut brought. “I like that with every photograph taken by Hubble, I’ve done something,” she said. “You’re affecting the understanding of mankind in your own small way.”
Hubble was complex enough, but JWST poses a new set of challenges, since it won’t be possible for astronauts to visit and service the observatory. As with Hubble and other observatories, JWST’s parts will age over time, so Balzano’s team is trying to weave together an extremely flexible software design that will be easy to change around in the case of hardware failures. “If something breaks, we can’t fix the hardware, but we can change the software,” she said. “That’s very exciting.”
It can also be intimidating in a way, she added. “We were spoiled (with Hubble) — no other space telescope is serviceable.”
Balzano’s experience working with Hubble has helped ease the way for planning for JWST. For 15 years, Balzano was one of the people called upon when something went wrong aboard Hubble. “We find a software solution to the hardware problem,” she said. “I enjoy solving puzzles, and when something happens on board, the puzzle is broken, and you have to put it together again.”
The challenge has kept her working for Hubble since 1983. When she arrived, she figured she would stay around for 2 years. “Then it would get boring and I’d go do something else. But every time we did a servicing mission, it was something new — new technology and new instruments. I’ve never been bored.”
And now there’s JWST to look forward to. “I keep thinking the same thing — after a year it’ll be boring,” she said, and laughed. “But what do I know?”
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