ASK OCE — November 3, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 15
Message from the Chief Engineer
The Embodiment of Excellence
By Chris Scolese
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Dr. John Mather of Goddard Space Flight Center for winning the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. John's lifetime of achievement in science serves as a reminder that NASA is engaged in some of the most important research in the world. The work for which he was so duly awarded has addressed fundamental scientific questions and deepened our understanding of the creation of the universe.
Sharing the prize with John Mather is Dr. George Smoot of the University of California at Berkeley. Their work sheds light on the origin of galaxies and stars and offers the most conclusive evidence of the Big Bang theory to date. Their investigation of cosmic microwave background radiation is based on measurements performed with NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE
) satellite, launched in 1989.
It’s fitting that John’s success — the first Nobel Prize awarded to a NASA employee for work conducted at a NASA center — came through the Explorer program, which is older than the Agency itself and has yielded some of the most important scientific findings of the past fifty years. Its first spacecraft, Explorer 1
, was the first satellite launched by the United States. It led to Dr. James van Allen’s discovery of the radiation belts surrounding Earth, now called Van Allen belts. Since then there have been more than 70 Explorer missions, and like COBE, many have been developed entirely in-house by NASA civil servants. By doing the work ourselves, we build technical capability that cannot be acquired any other way and keep our institutional knowledge base strong.
As an in-house project at Goddard Space Flight Center, COBE involved more than a thousand researchers, engineers, technicians, business managers, and administrative aides, exemplifying agency teamwork at its finest. As mission project scientist throughout its life cycle, John coordinated the overall process from proposal to closeout. The project scientist has primary responsibility for working with the principal investigator and project manager to ensure that the science requirements are defined and met, and to help coordinate research activities with national and international partners. The development of COBE spanned 15 years from proposal to launch, with a fair share of setbacks along the way. Originally slated for launch in 1986 aboard Challenger, it did not leave the ground for another three and a half years. The science mission was a true partnership: John had primary responsibility for the experiment that revealed the blackbody form of the microwave background radiation measured by COBE, while his colleague George Smoot had primary responsibility for measuring the small variations in the temperature of the radiation.
Since 1995, he has been Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST
), leading the science team and representing scientific interests within the project management team. In addition to his work for NASA, he has served on advisory and working groups for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation. He is a member of the Astrophysics Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Committee and of the Standing Review Board for the Kepler project.
In addition to his current work on JWST, he is also involved with the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE
), Microlensing Planet Finder (MPF
), Single Aperture Far InfraRed telescope (SAFIR
), and Submillimeter Probe of the Evolution of Cosmic Structure (SPECS
Read John Mather’s biography.