John Hagopian - Untangling Challenges at Goddard
To optical physicist turned inventor John Hagopian, everything is a puzzle and the game is to make connections that are not obvious.
Formal Job Classification:
Senior Optical Physicist
Code 551, Optics Branch; Alignment, Integration and Test Group; Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate
What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?
I am an optical physicist who develops technology and builds scientific instruments that fly in space. Currently, I am building an instrument called the Composite InfraRed Spectrometer Lite (CIRS-Lite), which may go to the outer planets. I am also the Principal Investigator for two research projects, one in nanotechnology and the other in segmented telescope technology, and the Co-Investigator for two other research projects.
Whenever projects have problems with their instruments, I try to help them too. I have a pretty full plate. I spend at least half of my time working with colleagues and collaborators and the other half researching technology and in the lab.
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John fishing with his son, Matthew. Photo courtesy of J. Hagopian
You cannot do anything without good teamwork. I work with technically excellent and very creative people. At any given moment, I collaborate with dozens of people on center as well as at the Applied Physics Lab, the Army Research Lab and various universities throughout the country. I am just disorganized enough to enjoy this kind of teamwork! We have a very small research budget, but because people enjoy creating new technology, we get a lot of synergy with peoples’ current tasks, which saves a lot of money.
Can you please describe your inventive approach?
Often we have to invent ways to build and test these unique instruments to demonstrate that they will survive the harsh conditions of space. I use many types of hardware including mechanical tools, lasers, detectors, alignment instruments and radiation sources. I apply the same inventive approach to my research in nanotechnology.
Because I am a hardware-oriented person, everything I invent has to help NASA build better instruments with new capabilities. For example, stray light from things we aren’t looking at prevents our instruments from seeing clearly enough to give us accurate measurements, so we use black light traps to help absorb stray light. I needed something black to help test a device that I was making. Since carbon is black, I started with carbon nanotubes, which are tiny, long, skinny tubes made out of carbon. Each tube is about 10,000 times thinner than a single strand of human hair. After three years, we made the darkest material ever invented, blacker than black, which is robust enough for space. In 2011, we won Goddard’s Innovator of the Year Award. http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/new-nano.html
I really like to try to understand how things work. To me, everything is a puzzle and the game is to make connections that are not obvious. I look at different technologies and find ways to put them all together to do something new. When I read about a new technology, I ask myself, “How does it work and how can I use it?” I use the same thought process when building instruments. A lot of times instruments do not work during some stage of their development. You have to try to untangle what is going on to fix the problem. While it is really stressful because there is so much pressure, I enjoy the challenge.
Who is the most interesting, inspiring or amazing person you have met or worked with at Goddard?
When I arrived in 1982, I worked with Bill Eichhorn on the Far Infrared Absolute Spectometer (FIRAS) instrument of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). He became my mentor. Bill was responsible for the optical alignment and test of the instrument, but he still had time to develop software. He was also completing his master’s in physics while learning Russian and Chinese. Bill taught me that building and testing instruments requires knowledge in many technical disciplines. Bill’s work ethic and attention to detail inspired me to leave no stone unturned.
What was your best day or the best thing that ever happened to you at Goddard?
Every time we build an instrument and it flies into space and works; that is a best day! So far, four of my instruments have flown and achieved mission success observing the universe from the x-ray to the far infrared part of the spectrum, which enables scientific observations of Earth, the sun, galaxies, supernovas and planets.
If you weren’t in your current profession, what would you be doing?
I would develop biotechnologies. The field is exploding in ways to help people that were not even imagined when I was in college.
Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests, or other activities outside of work that people do not generally know?
I spend as much time as I can with my family. I bike about 50 to 100 miles a week. I also like any kind of fishing.
If you could meet and talk to anybody, living or dead, who would it be and what’s the first thing you’d ask them?
I would want to talk to Albert Einstein. I would like to get his thoughts about the interaction of light with metamaterials, which are artificial materials engineered to have properties that are not found in nature and, of course, did not exist in his day.
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