Profile: Astrophysicist, Philanthropist, Visionary

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  Space News Business

Profile: Astrophysicist, Philanthropist, Visionary

By BRIAN BERGER
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 12 February 2007
03:42 pm ET


John C. Mather

James Webb Space Telescope Senior Scientist

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


John Mather says he still gets chills thinking about the standing ovation he and his colleagues | received at the American Astronomical Society’s January 1990 meeting after presenting a black-and-white line graph drawn from nine minutes of measurements their NASA-funded satellite had recently made of the cosmic background radiation at the north galactic pole. Esoteric stuff, but to the astronomers in attendance, it was reassuring evidence that the Big Bang Theory was still valid.

Sixteen years later, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Mather and George F. Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley, the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work with the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) spacecraft. The pair had not proven the Big Bang, Nobel officials said last October upon announcing the award, but had found “the missing link in cosmology.”

“The COBE results provided increased support for the Big Bang scenario for the origin of the Universe, as this is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave background radiation measured by COBE,” read the official citation.

Mather, the first NASA civil servant to win a Nobel, said the prize has not really changed things for him all that much, either at the space agency he’s called home since 1974 or within the broader scientific community. “I don’t even know that it’s changed my standing among scientists, because people had already known what we had done,” he said. “Everybody wants to hear what I have to say now, but people also know that I am the same person.”

Not even the money that comes with the honorifics will change him. Mather and his wife used the $700,000 Nobel prize money and the $125,000 Gruber Prize he won in 2006 to create the John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts, a scholarship fund to support science, especially space science and possibly training for systems engineers. “Also, my wife’s a ballet teacher and she has some plans for the money too,” he said.

When not giving speeches or serving on committees, the affable 60-year-old Nobel laureate spends most of his time planning the science and monitoring the progress on the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an observatory he proposed in 1995 as the Next Generation Space Telescope.

Mather is effusive about the observatory’s potential for achieving breakthrough science and is dedicated to helping it succeed. “I really want to see this project completed. I think it’s the greatest thing we can do for astronomers,” he said. “Lunch will be served in 2013.”

Mather spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger after addressing the Maryland Space Business Roundtable’s January luncheon.


Do you think the Nobel committee’s recognition of COBE will influence NASA’s thinking about smaller, competitively
selected missions?

NASA didn’t want to pull back on the smaller missions, but our budget was smaller than we hoped and the missions were harder than expected. The only logical choice, then, is to not start new projects until you’ve finished the old ones. While we haven’t seen many Explorer missions started lately, some Discovery missions came close to cancellation. The Space Interferometry Mission and Terrestrial Planet Finder have been stopped. W e’re going ahead with the Stratospheric Observatory for Far Infrared Astronomy and funding the Hubble servicing mission. The view of management is don’t break something you’ve got in order to start something new. Unfortunately that means we’ve been starved in the area of new projects because of troubles on existing projects. If I were king, my next priority would be to get the smaller missions going again. There is an awful lot that can be done with small missions.

Some have said it would be better for NASA to fund a greater number of smaller missions rather than putting so much money into JWST, especially given the agency’s budget situation. Where do you stand?

The COBE was done during a time when the Hubble telescope was overrunning its budget by a huge margin, so, okay, COBE had to wait . But it did get built and I think that can happen again. There are things that you can only find with large space observatories. So unless you don’t want to find those things, you shouldn’t cancel big projects that are started.

Is NASA done scaling back JWST?

I think so. Anything else we could do basically doesn’t help the budget at this point. Since we’ve already invested in almost everything there is to build, we’re not going to save much by not finishing. Could we have saved money by making the telescope smaller? We could have if we’d started a long time ago that way. But now that we’ve already cut the mirror blanks and begun polishing them, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Many missions outlined in the last decadal plan for astronomy remain undone. Why does the community see the need to produce a new list?

Many of the assumptions underlying the last one turned out to be incorrect. There was a sort of world wide optimism that we could do big things cheaper than before. The NASA missions described at that time were underestimated for cost. It was clearly our hope on JWST that we could carry off the faster, better, cheaper revolution and get it done at a lower cost. But it was not possible. It’s like the communists wanting to invent a better human being. It’s not going to happen. There are just a certain number of large technical issues on a giant mission like JWST that have to be solved one by one. Now more than ever it is important to set priorities.

What are grand challenges for astronomy today?

I’m looking forward to what the decadal survey tells us about this, but certainly one of the topics that is really hot these days is planet-finding. Just about a decade ago we found out that there are lots of planets around other stars. I think the world wants us to find those planets and learn as much as we can about them.

Scientists often get blamed for heaping requirements onto missions. Is that fair?

Mather’s rule of management is anything that’s not required is forbidden. Of course, if there is some little thing you can do to improve your instrument a lot, then you better do it, because you may not have another chance for a long time. But when you’re working with a giant mission like JWST and it’s the edge of what you could possibly do, adding one more little thing is not the thing to do. So you don’t.

What are the programmatic or budgetary challenges facing astronomy?

Our appetite is bigger than our wallet. But the marvelous things we want to do aren’t going away. If we can’t do them now, maybe we’ll do them later.

How did NASA’s transition from Apollo to the space shuttle affect astronomy?

It was a little chaotic. When I came to Goddard, we were entering a period where NASA had agreed to use the space shuttle for everything. It was pretty clear to all of us that it was a politically driven decision that made no technical sense. The unmanned vehicles were perfectly fine and they did some things the space shuttle could never do. So we were forced to design the COBE to go up on the shuttle even though we had to add a 5,000 pound propulsion system to get to where we needed to go. After the 1986 Challenger accident, we were put on a Delta 2 and life became a lot simpler. But political decisions made a huge difference to the technical content of the NASA program in the late 1970s. It did not seem sensible at the time, but there was no avoiding it. Those were forces much higher than us.

Is NASA in a similar situation today as it sets its sights on going back to the Moon?

Well, I don’t know. Almost every commentator on the subject says it’s a great idea, but there isn’t enough money. So we’re kind of starting off on a process without knowing how it’s going to come out. Will we only get to the Moon and then run out of money or are we really going to take seriously the investment in the new technologies that it takes to go to Mars? Personally I would be thrilled if people could walk around on Mars and do the things that people do when they’re exploring.

Is the Moon a good platform for astronomy?

 

For ordinary telescopes, the Moon is actually a pretty hostile place. There’s nothing easy about using the Moon for a telescope platform, but there are a few things in astronomy that are very interesting. One is to upgrade the retro reflectors that were put on the Moon by one of the very first Apollo missions. They allowed us to use laser ranging to measure the Moon’s distance down to submillimeter accuracy, which is astonishing. We could do better with new equipment on the Moon, either different passive devices or some active devices. This is essentially a physics experiment and one of the great tests of general relativity.

What about radio astronomy from the Moon?

Well, that’s gotten a lot of good reviews too. No precise optics required. The Moon has the advantage that if you want you can put your observatory on the far side so that it’s pretty well protected from transmissions from the Earth — and at long wavelengths that’s important, because the Earth is really loud. We talk a lot on the radio and the power coming out is huge. So some people that know a lot more about it than I do are pretty excited about this. Maybe that’ll pan out.