New director prepares to join space institute in tough times

Hubble, Webb telescopes face safety, budget issues

June 14, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

With both the Hubble Space Telescope and the planned James Webb Space Telescope in trouble, the consortium that operates the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore has turned for leadership to an astronomer skilled in building and running big observatories.

The group announced yesterday that Mattias Mountain, director of the Gemini Observatory - twin 8-meter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile - will replace institute Director Steven V.W. Beckwith on Sept. 1, assuming what is perhaps one of the world's top jobs in space science.

"It's an extraordinary privilege," Mountain, 48, said yesterday. "The Hubble Space Telescope is the world's most powerful telescope, and to be given the task of guiding its science program is something one dreams about."

The stakes are high in Baltimore. The Space Telescope Science Institute employs about 400 people on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, where they have managed Hubble since its launch in 1990.

Hubble will encounter crippling mechanical failures as early as 2007 if NASA is unable or unwilling to launch shuttle astronauts on a servicing mission before then.

Since 2003, the institute has also had a $162 million contract to advise NASA and its contractors on the development of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Webb is scheduled to launch in 2012 to search for the earliest stars formed after the Big Bang. Once it's in orbit, its science operations will likely be managed at the institute.

But NASA recently acknowledged that the $3.5 billion project has amassed $1 billion in projected budget overruns.

Even before his new appointment, Mountain was named to lead a team of scientists and engineers who will huddle this summer to find ways to transform and downsize Webb and bring it back within budget.

"The job of Space Telescope Science Institute director is not for the faint of heart; he's very well aware of that," said William S. Smith, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc., which hired Mountain for the job with NASA's concurrence.

AURA is a consortium of 32 U.S. institutions and seven foreign affiliates that manages the STScI under contract with NASA.

Beckwith, who has been director since 1998, announced 11 months ago that he would leave his post effective Sept. 1.

His resignation, he said at the time, was the result of concern that his high-profile advocacy for a fifth shuttle mission to Hubble had jeopardized what he could achieve for the institute in the future.

Beckwith had spoken out in opposition to then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's decision to scrub the mission. O'Keefe cited safety concerns raised after the shuttle Columbia disaster.

Beckwith declined yesterday to comment on the choice of his successor.

Ironically, Michael Griffin - O'Keefe's successor as NASA administrator - now wants to reverse O'Keefe's decision, provided that the first two shuttle flights since the Columbia accident are completed safely.

That has renewed hopes that astronauts will be able to install hardware needed to keep Hubble alive into the next decade and install powerful new scientific instruments to expand its view of the heavens.

A native of England, Mountain received his doctorate in astronomy in 1983 from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, at London University. He later joined the staff at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The author of more than 100 scientific papers and articles, he has focused his research on star and galaxy formation and on instrumentation for infrared astronomy.

In 1992, he became project scientist for the Gemini telescopes to be built in Hawaii and Chile. He joined at a critical time, according to W. Patrick McCray, an associate professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara.

"There was a large controversy over what type of mirror to use in the Gemini telescopes. At the time, it was threatening to torpedo the entire project. Matt was one of the people that shepherded the project through that phase," said McCray, author of Giant Telescopes, a 2004 book on Gemini and other large observatories.

In 1994, Mountain became Gemini's director. He oversaw the telescopes' construction and commissioning. The work finished on time and within its $184 million budget.

Bob Gehrz, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota, was chairman of the international Gemini Corp. that built the telescopes.

"He's shown he had the ability to manage a giant, technically difficult project," Gehrz said, skills that will be needed for Hubble and Webb. "He has good skills at managing people, too."

Ghassem Asrar, deputy associate administrator for science at NASA, called Mountain "an accomplished scientist and a truly distinguished leader" as director of a major observatory.

Pending the shuttles' return to flight, he said, Griffin is "passionate" about servicing Hubble and extending its scientific lifetime. And the institute is going to be playing a "major role" in the debate over the future of the Webb telescope.

Smith said AURA did not set out to hire a big-project manager for the Space Telescope Science Institute. Tradition at the institute skews the other way. The founding director of the institute was Riccardo Giacconi, co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics for pioneering work in X-ray astronomy.

"We wanted to look at the best candidates. Some were scientists of the Giacconi spirit, and some were project managers," Smith said. "I think some people [on the selection panel] certainly took that view, that we needed a strong manager."

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