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Northwestern University

Exploring the Cosmos with Goddard's Chief and Hubble's Champion Edward Weiler

Children of the ’50s and ’60s could hardly forget John F. Kennedy’s dramatic proclamation in 1961 that by the end of the decade, the United States would put a man on the moon.

Edward J. Weiler was such a child. He remembers rising before dawn to watch Alan Shepard blast off and then John Glenn. The son of a steel worker from the South Side of Chicago, he made himself a three-pronged promise at the age of 13: to go to Northwestern, to become an astronomer, and to work for NASA. And then he kept that promise.

A shy child, he admits to skipping class at St. Ignatius College Prep to avoid giving a speech before his classmates. He says he blossomed at Northwestern, receiving three degrees in astronomy (’71,’72 and ’76) and—not so insignificant to his later career—mastering the art of public speaking. As an undergrad scholarship student, he worked at Alumni Relations as the director’s driver and pitched his Psi Upsilon team to a softball trophy. He is still close friends with a former roommate, Steve Goldman, who shares his love of water skiing.

Throughout a storied career at NASA, the astrophysicist has fought for the Hubble Space Telescope, the instrument which has parsed light from the remains of the Big Bang and distant galaxies and revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Today, as director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, 20 minutes outside D.C. in Greenbelt, Maryland, he is responsible for a budget of $3 billion, and oversees 8,000 employees, mostly scientists and engineers. A remarkable 11 space launches are slated in 2008.

In his office at Goddard, on a warm day in late October, Weiler sat down with Crosscurrents. Listening to the drama of the Hubble and his vision for the future, it was easy to catch his excitement and remember those early days of wonder. As both scientist and human being, Weiler makes an excellent case for why we should be excited still.

Why Northwestern?

At age 12 or 13, I was in the astronomy club at the Adler Planetarium and we went to hear a Northwestern professor speak at the Dearborn Observatory. It just happened to be J. Allen Hynek [famed ufologist], who talked about his beliefs in the search for life. In those days, that was taboo: How dare you even think there could be other beings out there? He was a rogue. He wasn’t a UFO nut; he wanted to study them scientifically. He turned me on to Northwestern.

I’ll never forget my interview at Northwestern because it was on the day of one of the worst blizzards in Chicago history, January 26, 1967. I ended up having to thumb my way home. The interviewer had said, “Your SATs are sort of marginal for Northwestern. We just want to let you know you’re on the hairy edge here but we’ll probably admit you.” I graduated with a 3.5.

How did Northwestern prepare you for succeeding at the highest levels of NASA?

In my job here, I deal with people. On a daily basis I use very little of the astrophysics or the physics but I use a hell of a lot of the psychology. I didn’t minor in psychology but took some courses to fill the liberal arts requirements. The courses helped me a lot in understanding how the human brain works.

At the Lindheimer Observatory on Lake Michigan [torn down in 1995], I also did open houses every Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. For $10 an hour—big bucks in those days—we had to face the public and answer questions. Anyone could walk in, from little kids to adults, from inner city families to high income families. Being able to have any kind of question thrown at you and being on the line, representing the University, was invaluable training for the thousands of interviews I’ve done over my career on live TV, for newspapers and magazines, testifying before Congress. Being a graduate teaching assistant in the astronomy department was also invaluable.

Tell us about your role on the Hubble Space Telescope.

It’s by far the proudest part of my career because it is an example of sticking with something if it’s important. I started on Hubble in ’76 when I went to Princeton, my first job after Northwestern. My boss was Lyman Spitzer, Jr. who just happened to be the father of the Hubble. He dreamed it up in 1946 and it only took four or five decades to get it launched. When I went full time with NASA in ’78, I became the chief scientist and was directly involved with it on a daily basis. When I moved up the chain as associate administrator it was still under my purview. Now it’s our program here at Goddard, so my line management responsibility of it has been for about 30 years.

As we were leading to launch in 1990 it was a great ride. Everybody was looking forward to it. Hubble was going to be the greatest thing since Galileo. And, of course, we went from Mount Everest to Death Valley in two months.

Because of a slight problem in the mirror, 1/50th the thickness of a human hair, too much glass ground off at one edge, the first pictures to come back were blurry and Hubble was seen as an example of American technology gone wrong. A lot of people disappeared from the Hubble program because it was a national disaster, a joke on Johnny Carson.

Did you find out about the flaw before the rest of the world?

I knew about it two months after the launch. We thought we could fix it by adjusting components within the telescope but we tried more and more things and they didn’t work. By June 27, 1990, the day that will live in infamy, we finally said, “It’s broken and we’re going to have to fix it.” And I was the honored person to get to tell the American people on live TV….Two months ago, I gave the suit I wore that day to Goodwill. Bad memories.

The terrible reaction by the press and the American people actually drove us all together. Goddard people, Johnson Space Center people, headquarters people, contractors, all the badges disappeared and we were on one team and we plowed our way through. By December 2, 1993, we launched the repair mission, and we fixed Hubble over the course of seven days, on cost and 100 percent. And it’s actually delivered far more than we ever promised.

What are Hubble’s main contributions to science, in a nutshell?

There are whole books written on the subject, but in a nutshell, we proved black holes are scientific reality, not science fiction. We determined the age of the universe is 13.8 billion years. Hubble went up and took the deepest exposure [of remote galaxies] and we were able to look at objects 10 times fainter than we had anticipated. What did we see when we looked back to a billion years after the Big Bang, when our textbooks had told us the “babies” [galaxies and stars] were being born? We saw kids in middle school; they weren’t babies, they were already well grown. The universe started getting its act together way before any of our textbooks or professors had said it would.

Some of the most interesting findings are the things we didn’t anticipate.

Hubble was a major factor in proving that dark energy exists. We observed that the galaxies aren’t slowing down, they’re speeding up. There’s this anti-gravity repulsive force that’s pushing everything farther and farther apart. And it’s 70 percent of the universe; it’s the single biggest problem in physics right now. What is dark energy? We haven’t the slightest idea but it shouldn’t be there. When astronomers use the word “dark,” it’s because we really don’t have the slightest idea what we are talking about. It’s going to take many, many new missions and many, many decades to really understand what this stuff is. And boy, if we can understand it, maybe we can figure out how to use it. Because humans spend our entire lives fighting gravity from the first time we stand up as kids. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a force that made things go up?

What about life on other planets?

That gets full circle with J. Allen Hynek: 30 years ago we couldn’t talk about life in the universe, because obviously, we [thought we] were the only life in the universe. I couldn’t believe that was true because if you put on a piece of paper the number of stars in the known universe, it’s 1 followed by 23 zeroes. Twenty-three zeroes! But if there’s only one solar system, who cares how many stars there are?

Hubble has shown, when one looks at baby stars in our galaxy, these black discs with dust going around them, exactly what we always thought would be the way our solar system was formed. When a star forms it starts to spin and it spreads out and little grains of dust will stick together and more grains will stick together and slowly you build planets. Hubble has shown that that’s a common phenomenon, in other words, the production of planets is part of star formation. So if you extrapolate, what if every star has a solar system? Suddenly, it’s not just 1 followed by 23 zeroes stars, but 1 followed by 23 zeroes solar systems.

And you have to be pretty arrogant to think that this is the only place where life forms. We have a whole new field called astrobiology, the study of biology in space. So it’s okay now in scientific conferences to talk about the possibilities of life in the universe. If J. Allen were still around, he’d be smiling.

Projecting beyond Hubble, what might we find?

Beyond Hubble and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, we will have the technology not just to detect planets around other stars, we are already doing that. But we will actually find the little pale blue dots, like the earth, and study their atmospheres to look for elements like oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane. If you find those four elements in an atmosphere, you’ve proven there’s biology on the planet.

But we can go beyond that, in this century. I think our grandchildren’s generation will build systems which see more than a pale blue dot. They’ll build telescopes even bigger to stretch out images with multiple pixels so that you start defining continents and oceans and maybe you’ll see the lights come on at night. You might say there’s some intelligent life. Or a lot of fireflies. But I think intelligent life.

Goddard’s activities include building and operating space and earth-observing space craft, conducting scientific research, and developing cutting edge instruments. What are you most excited about?

What really excites me about Goddard is something I didn’t know when I worked at NASA headquarters—the things we do which are important to the average American.

Here at Goddard, we manage every civilian weather satellite that’s ever been launched for the United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pays for them, but we build and manage them. The scientists here at Goddard, in consort with their colleagues at NOAA and some other federal agencies, play a major role in the kind of modeling that’s done on forecasting hurricanes. When we were growing up, you were lucky if you had 12 hours’ notice before a hurricane struck; now we’re up to two or three days. Predicting hurricanes’ intensity is a big issue we’re going to be looking at in the next few years.

Goddard is where the study of climate and climate change has really been moving out. Now, finally, the country is starting to accept the fact that things are changing and they’re changing big time. The North Polar ice is melting faster than we even thought. It’s not our job to tell the country what to do but to give the country data. We have to continue to do an aggressive earth science program, to monitor ice levels, vegetation, rainfall, etc. We’re going to be launching the Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) in three or four years.

Have the cuts in budget adversely affected climate research?

The budget is turning around. NASA’s current administrator [Michael Griffin] is actually increasing earth science funding, so I’m pretty optimistic. I think there’s resurgence coming in earth science. It’s been in the doldrums for many years, but I think all the public interest now has really started to turn things around.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is a robotic spacecraft, set to launch in 2008, which will orbit around the moon. What do you hope to find out?

Even though we’ve been to the moon, and driven SUVs on the moon in the ‘60s, we don’t a have digital map of our nearest neighbor. We stopped studying the moon effectively 30 years ago.

The LRO is not only our responsibility, we are actually building it here at Goddard, just half a mile away from where we’re sitting. The first thing we’re going to do with LRO is get a high resolution map of every piece of the moon, pole to pole. It will be on the Internet and kids can take the latitude and longitude. In addition, we’re going to get an altimetry map of the moon, the highs and lows. If you’re an astronaut coming down in a space capsule, you’ll want to know if there’s a 20-foot boulder in your way.

How many U.S. lunar missions will there be before humans set foot on the moon again?

The follow-on missions haven’t been well-defined. There’s a debate about how many we actually need if we have the map and have the altimeters. The next mission would probably be a robotic lander, but that’s still not well defined.

In a post 9-11 world, how do you get the public excited about exploring outer space?

In 2003, the President did something that NASA had been desperate for: set us in a new direction. [President Bush set a priority of human exploration of the moon and Mars.] For a long time we were stuck with space shuttles going up to space stations—we really weren’t going anyplace. It was like buying a new car in Washington and just going around the Beltway.

That’s what LRO is all about. It’s what the new space capsule called Orion, with a rocket called Aries, is all about. It’s being able to give future generations the ability to start moving out into the solar system. Exploration is our destiny. The country needs something to get excited about and to look forward to because that’s the nature of America. We’re pioneers. We’re explorers. It’s in our genes.

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