Project Scientist Randy Kimble
Randy Kimble

Randy Kimble is a project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope Development Project at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Image Credit: NASA

Note: Some quotes in this story have been changed for readability.

Describe your role with the Mission to Hubble.

My official title is project scientist for the HST (Hubble Space Telescope) Development Project, which produces new hardware -- scientific instruments, gyroscopes, batteries, etc. -- for installation into the telescope. I provide scientific guidance to these activities to help ensure that the new hardware will meet its scientific goals.

The largest single aspect of my job for this mission is to serve as instrument scientist for the Wide Field Camera 3, a very exciting new imager that has been developed to go up on the Mission to Hubble. That camera will provide much-higher-performance imaging at ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths than Hubble has ever had before, while complementing the existing Advanced Camera for Surveys at visible wavelengths as well.

What should people know about Hubble?

Hubble produces results that are thrilling, both intellectually and aesthetically.

It is a wonderful thing that humans are able to use modern technological tools such as Hubble, along with our understanding of physics that has been developed over centuries, to try to understand something as vast and complex as the observable universe. Hubble observations help us understand how the universe works, how it has evolved through cosmic time, and how it will change in the future. It is tremendously exciting to think that this sort of understanding is within our grasp.

The aesthetic aspects of Hubble are important, too. The universe is filled with spectacular, beautiful objects and phenomena. The ability of Hubble pictures to make that beauty available to everyone is a significant part of its success.

What was your involvement with Hubble before 2009's Mission to Hubble?

I've been involved with the Hubble mission since 1990. From that time until Servicing Mission 2 in 1997, I worked as an instrument scientist, helping to develop the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. STIS did spectacular work in such areas as measuring the masses of black holes in the centers of galaxies, in detecting constituents of the atmosphere of a planet around another star, and so on, until its electronics failed in 2004. An exciting part of the upcoming servicing mission will be an attempt by astronauts to bring STIS back to life by installing a replacement for the critical electronics board that has failed.

From 1997 to 2002, I supported the operation of STIS, did a bit of observing with it myself, and helped develop the Advanced Camera for Surveys that was installed into the telescope in a previous servicing mission.

What did you do before Hubble?

For much of the 1980s, I worked at Johns Hopkins University on something called the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope, which flew on a space shuttle mission in 1990 and then again in 1995. HUT made spectroscopic observations at ultraviolet wavelengths while attached, along with a couple other UV telescopes, to a pointing system in the cargo bay of the space shuttle.

As a graduate student, I worked on a couple of NASA scientific sounding rockets that launched from White Sands, N.M. Those are rockets that go essentially straight up, get above the atmosphere for a few precious minutes of observing, and then come back down to Earth on a parachute. That's five pulse-pounding minutes of activity before the payload floats back down to the desert. Exciting stuff.

How did you become interested in science? How did that interest grow into a career?

I always tell my mother that it's all her fault -- for getting me a little book called "Our Sun and the Worlds Around It" at a school book fair back in elementary school. For whatever reason, I was always very interested in science (and) enjoyed reading things like Isaac Asimov's books of essays on scientific topics or Fred Hoyle's books on astronomy. That interest, combined with the excitement of the manned space program in the 1960s -- I remember going to the school cafeteria to watch the first Mercury launches, culminating in the moon landings of the Apollo program -- is what got me headed in this direction.

Then, in college, I was particularly excited by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Professor Walter Lewin's talks on X-ray astronomy, with dramatic tales of his work with rockets and high-altitude balloons. The work that I've been involved with since then combines the excitement of astronomy and astrophysics with the really cool rocket stuff. I feel very fortunate to have been able to combine the science and the "cool toys" into an actual career.

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about a career in science?

Of course, (I would give) the standard advice of diving into all the science and math that's available to you, since that's the basis of any technical career. If you're fortunate enough to have local mentoring opportunities, you can get engaged in this sort of work and get a flavor for what it's like even during high school. Where I work, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, there are numerous summer interns, for example. Not everyone is close to a NASA center, of course. But seek out what opportunities there may be in your area, and then certainly follow through with a technical major in college, again looking for any internship opportunities that in the field that grabs your interest. Good luck!

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies