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Matt Greenhouse - Always Puts the Mission First
September 3, 2013

[image-67]Name: Matt Greenhouse
Title: Project Scientist for the Science Instrument Payload of the James Webb Space Telescope
Formal Job Classification: Astrophysicist
Organization: Code 665, Laboratory for Observational Cosmology, Science Mission Directorate

James Webb Space Telescope Project Scientist Matt Greenhouse lives by the phrase “always put the mission first.”

What is a typical day on the job like for you? 

I’m the scientist with the single-point accountability for the science performance of the instrument payload for the James Webb Space Telescope. This determines everything that I do. I spend a great deal of time helping the management and engineering teams solve problems while still allowing the science requirements to be met. I also spend a lot of time helping people understand the science requirements and talking about the mission to stakeholders and the public.

The Webb Telescope is the largest science project that the United States is doing today, and is one of NASA’s three main priorities. I’m very happy to be on the Webb Telescope mission. I’ve been working on the Webb Telescope full-time since 1997. It will launch during 2018.

Are foreign partners involved?

The Webb Telescope is a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Most of the foreign participation is in the science instrument payload for which I’m responsible. The only exception is the rocket that will carry the Webb Telescope to space. We will be flying on a French rocket called the Arian V that will be launched from Kourou Launch Center in French Guiana. International projects are the norm today for any big program, and these three partners are used to working together. Language is not an issue as English is the international language of business and science. 

Why did you choose your profession?

After I got my undergraduate degree in geology, I decided that I wanted to do something that, to me, was of more lasting value to humanity than mineral exploration. While trying to figure out what that would be, I took a job as an instrument technician on a cryogenic balloon-borne telescope project and discovered astronomy as a profession. I had never even met an astronomer before. As a result of that experience, I went back to school to get a doctorate in astrophysics.

Why did you come to work at Goddard and what makes you stay?

During my post-doc and early career, I learned that there are important advantages to aligning my interests with those of my employer. Goddard is an organization where doing the impossible is considered to be our main line of business. It is an incredibly rich and nurturing environment for anyone who wants to develop and apply new technologies and methods in space and Earth science. We have the largest collection of scientists, engineers and managers of any organization in the world and the best mission success record of any space flight organization in any sector of the space business. It is a fantastic environment for a scientist or engineer who likes doing very challenging, experimental projects.

Who is the most interesting, inspiring or amazing person you have met or worked with at Goddard?

The Webb Telescope team is a great team. I learn from my teammates every day. John Mather, Phil Sabelhaus, Ed Weiler and Harley Thronson have mentored me in my professional development at Goddard. I’ve learned a lot from each of them as leaders.  

What do you enjoy most about being an astrophysicist for the Webb Telescope?

What excites me the most is that I’m enabling more science for the worldwide astronomical community than I could ever do as an individual astrophysicist. This aspect is very much in line with my motivation to join the civil service, which is to serve the nation - rather than the other way around.

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done as part of your job at Goddard?[image-51]

The fact that we have been able to develop a mission involving the technical difficulty and resulting innovations of the Webb Telescope, which will open the complete fossil record of the universe for study by the worldwide science community, is something that I consider to be very cool. The Webb Telescope will transform humanity’s understanding of how the universe evolved from the Big Bang to the present day - on all levels. For example, the Webb Telescope will hopefully reveal how galaxies and planetary systems form and evolve. The Webb Telescope may even find evidence of biological processes on extra-solar planets.

If you weren’t in your current profession, what would you be doing?

I’d be an oceanographer or planetary geologist.

Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests or activities outside of work that people do not generally?

I have been sailing all my life and that’s what I enjoy most when I’m not at work. I have a 30 foot sailboat named “Friendship,” which I take out almost every weekend for day and weekend trips.

Do you have a favorite book, magazine, movie or TV show?

John McPhee is one of my favorite authors because he writes about man’s interaction and understanding of nature from the perspective of a geologist.

What one word or phrase best describes you?

Professionally, I live by the phrase “put the mission first.” I internalize this principle at a deep gut level. It can be a very powerful tool for gaining clarity of thought and resolving or adjudicating competing interests that typically occur on a large program.

What is the one big dream you have?

To see the Webb Telescope succeed.

Of Note:  Matt Greenhouse received the Robert H. Goddard award for Exceptional Achievement in Science during 2010.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA'S Goddard Space Flight Center

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Matt Greenhouse sailing on his boat, "Friendship."
Matt Greenhouse sailing on his boat, "Friendship."
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Courtesy of Matt Greenhouse
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Matt Greenhouse
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Page Last Updated: September 3rd, 2013
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner