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Center Snapshot: Bill Hunt
May 30, 2014

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Bill Hunt has spent decades wrangling complex pieces of space technology, but part of his soul never left the green fields of rural Virginia.

He’s a 73-year-old scientist who helped create cutting-edge satellite tools for measuring clouds, smoke, dust and pollution in Earth’s atmosphere. He also plays guitar in Orion, a contra dance and old-time music band.

Can a man be at once high-tech and old-timey? With Hunt, the opposites seem right at home.

“There are people who will argue that music and mathematics or science kind of go together,” said Hunt, chief research scientist for Science Systems and Applications Inc. (SSAI) at NASA’s Langley Research Center.  “I understand the argument but I don’t know if it has much to do with what I do. The music is just a different interest. It has little to do with my real job. It’s good relaxation. It’s a nice complement.”

The music also helps Hunt stay connected to his rural roots. He grew up on a tobacco farm in Franklin County not expecting to go to college at all, much less to become an award-winning satellite technology expert.

These days, this Williamsburg resident is happy to visit his home region where appreciation of old-time music is surging.

 “I really get some satisfaction out of going back and visiting and hearing music and playing music out in that part of the state,” Hunt said. “I’m back in home territory.”[image-80]

A lidar pioneer

Hunt blazed his professional path with bright mind and razor-sharp focus, although his soft-spoken modesty prevents him from telling you that.

“Everything just sort of fell my way,” Hunt said. “You have fortuitous events that follow one after another. I’ve had a lot of those.”

Hunt has been supporting lidar (light detection and ranging) projects at NASA Langley since 1973. “He took some of the first lidar measurements,” said Patricia Lucker, Hunt’s supervisor with SSAI. “He was one of the pioneers of atmospheric lidar, airborne lidar.”

Hunt would go on to work with the LITE (Lidar In-space Technology Experiment) system built at NASA Langley and sent into orbit aboard the space shuttle in 1994.

Most significantly, he played a lead role in creating the lidar instrument that flies aboard the CALIPSO (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation) spacecraft.

His work, which has given scientists a deluge of data on atmospheric aerosols, earned him NASA Public Service Medals in 1989, 1995 and 2009.

A fork in the road

Turn the clock back to the 1950s, though, and you’d find Hunt attending high school in the small town of Rocky Mount, Virginia, and envisioning a very different future for himself. More interested in electronics than farming, he worked part-time job at a radio and television repair shop during high school. He imagined he’d do something similar after graduation.

“Nobody in my family had ever been to college,” Hunt said. “I always figured I wouldn’t either. We just didn’t have money to send me to college.”

That changed when a young high school teacher spotted Hunt’s aptitude and encouraged him to enter a physics contest sponsored by the College of William and Mary.

“The bottom line, I did well enough to end up with a full four-year scholarship,” Hunt said. “That’s the only reason I ended up at William and Mary and the only reason I went to college. That was one of those fortuitous things.”

Making connections

At William and Mary, Hunt met two people important to his future. In the summer of 1961, physics professor Don Lawrence hired him for a job measuring radio signals from a satellite. It was Hunt’s first taste of using satellites to study Earth’s atmosphere. Later, Lawrence would join NASA Langley and work many years as chief of the Atmospheric Services Division.

After earning his physics degree at William and Mary, Hunt briefly tried graduate school at Princeton University and teaching at Hampton High School, then headed back to William and Mary to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics.

Hunt left the program before earning his Ph.D, but at William and Mary he met fellow graduate student Pat McCormick who would later join NASA Langley and become a key figure there, guiding development of the SAM (Stratospheric Aerosol Measurement) and SAGE I (Strategic Aerosol and Gas Experiment) satellites.

As a graduate assistant on McCormick’s Ph.D. project, Hunt was introduced to working with lidar. A number of years later, when a job opened up at NASA supporting a new mobile lidar system, Hunt took it and never looked back.

Mountain music memories

Musically speaking, though, Hunt has never stopped looking back.

“I grew up listening to what would commonly be called hillbilly music,” Hunt said. One of his grandfathers played old-time country music and Hunt owns his homemade fretless banjo. It’s one of his most-prized possessions. “We used to have neighbors who would come over and sit around and play music. It was just part of the culture out there.”

Hunt got to college just in time to witness the “folk scare” of the early 1960s. “I was delighted when people like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio came along. I could identify with their music much more than I could with the rock ’n’ roll that had become all the rage … It was about then that I first picked up the guitar and started learning how to play.”[image-51] 

His first performances were at a Methodist coffeehouse for college students at William and Mary. That’s also where he met Linda, his wife of 36 years, who is also employed by SSAI.

Finding his niche

At work, Hunt found his niche acting as a link between engineers and scientists and helping to map out the specs for sophisticated lidar tools headed for space.

“He’s an engineer who gets the science and scientist who gets the engineering,” said Lucker, Hunt’s supervisor. “He’s a great bridge within our team. I and many others credit him with a big part of the CALIPSO success. He was in it on the ground floor.”

CALIPSO was supposed to be a 3-year mission but it’s now approaching its 9th year of life. “We credit Bill with a lot of that,” Lucker said.

Hunt said he feels fatherly pride in CALIPSO, which was launched in April 2006 and has since fired some 4.6 billion laser shots back at the Earth to study the atmosphere. “Nobody had flown a laser in space that had even remotely lasted this long,” Hunt said. “There were a lot of people telling us it wouldn’t last two months … I’m very proud of how it’s performed.”

A satisfying life

Just like CALIPSO, Hunt could have retired years ago, but he’s still going strong. He’s cut back on his hours, but he enjoys his job too much to retire. “I like the people I work with. They’re paying me. Why should I retire?” he asked. “I would be stupid to retire.”

Looking back on 40 years work with NASA, Hunt doesn’t daydream about the road not taken. He’s more of a glass half-full kind of guy.

“I look at that question the opposite way,” he said. “I think, ‘Boy, I’m glad I didn’t get that Ph.D. and go into academics.’ What I’ve been doing is a whole lot more fun. And a whole lot more satisfying.”

Sam McDonald
NASA Langley Research Center

Bill Hunt helped create a lidar system for CALIPSO.
Bill Hunt, chief research scientist for Science Systems and Applications Inc. at NASA's Langley Research Center, played a key role in developing the lidar system that flies on the CALIPSO satellite.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
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Bill Hunt poses with wife, Linda, and son, Tom.
Bill Hunt poses with wife, Linda, and son, Tom. A resident of McGaheysville, Virginia, Tom is 27 years old.
Image Credit: 
Courtesy of Bill Hunt
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Bill Hunt, far left, plays acoustic guitar in the folk group Orion.
Bill Hunt, far left, plays acoustic guitar in the folk group Orion.
Image Credit: 
Courtesy of Orion
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Page Last Updated: May 30th, 2014
Page Editor: Samuel McDonald