John C. Mather went to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 1976 with one goal: taking measurements in space that would show how the universe was formed.
His focus paid off. Mather oversaw the development and launching of a satellite that took a unique snapshot of the early universe by measuring the pervasive radiation left over from the big bang.
Yesterday, his work at the Greenbelt facility earned him a share of the Nobel Prize for physics with collaborator George F. Smoot, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
The Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) is credited with confirming the big-bang theory of the universe's beginnings and laying a foundation for a generation of satellites and telescopes that later pinpointed the universe's age at 13.7 billion years.
"It was the first time we had seen where stars and galaxies and planets had came from, structures that we care about because we live on them," said Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, chairman of the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History.
COBE was able to observe the universe just 380,000 years after the explosion and rapid expansion of matter that occurred with the creation of the universe.
Astronomers were awed by the results. When Mather showed images from COBE to hundreds of them at an astronomy meeting two months after its launch in 1989, they gave him an unprecedented standing ovation.
"It's virtually unheard of for scientists to get up and react like that. It was a very dramatic moment," Mac Low said.
Mather, 60, as principal investigator and project leader, was responsible for one of three COBE instruments used to measure the temperatures of the microwave background. Smoot, 61, was responsible for another instrument that measured tiny variations in intensity of radiation, which was a key to understanding how galaxies form.
Mather, a senior astrophysicist, is the second scientist with Maryland connections to win a Nobel Prize this week. Andrew Z. Fire, a Stanford University researcher who worked at the Carnegie Institution's department of embryology in Baltimore, shared the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for research conducted while in Baltimore. Nobels for chemistry, literature, peace and economics will be announced in coming days.
Mather, the first NASA civil servant to win a Nobel prize, said he is unsure whether his status as a federal employee will keep him from receiving his share of the $1.37 million award, to be distributed in December. NASA officials say they have to check with lawyers to see whether he is eligible.
But Mather was in a lighthearted mood at a Washington news conference yesterday. Smiling and joking, he thanked his colleagues. As one of them walked up to congratulate him, he said, "Handshakes are 5 cents each."
When the call from the Nobel committee came, just before 6 a.m., his first thought was to get rid of the caller.
"I rolled over and thought I'd talk with them for just a moment," he said, "but then I thought, `I better sit up.'"
Mather called his mother in New Jersey and his sister in Philadephia. He received about 500 e-mails throughout the day, but the voice mail on his telephone quickly filled with messages and his BlackBerry eventually crashed.
He knew the Nobel was a possibility but made a point to never talk about it with anyone:
"Just like you don't name your child until he's born, you don't jinx it by talking about it," Mather said.
He characterized his success as being the result of "intense work by thousands of NASA scientists and engineers." He was attracted to cosmology by the mystery of how the birth of the universe eventually led to the birth of life, he said.
"I've always been excited to know how we got here."
But he said heading the COBE project, which involved coordinating the work of scientists and engineers around the world, tested his patience as a manager. The satellite was originally designed for launch on the space shuttle, but that changed after the Challenger explosion in 1986.
NASA grounded the shuttle fleet and decided to use a Delta rocket to launch COBE into its polar orbit, 625 miles above Earth. The change forced a team of 200 engineers and scientists to redesign the craft, cutting its weight by half and shrinking its diameter from 15 feet to 12 feet.
"People thought it was an impossible project and it almost was," Mather said in an interview.
As part of his work at Goddard's Observational Cosmology Lab, Mather is senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched in 2013. He teaches part time at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"He's brilliant, but I'd also say that he doesn't take himself too seriously," said Jonathan Gardner, chief of the observational lab.