The Master of Hubble

Ethan Schreier,

Rodger Doxsey passed away on October 13.  He had been at the Institute for 28 years, almost exactly.  I know because I hired him, and he actually started work at STScI shortly before I moved to Baltimore myself.

All STScI staff know that Rodger was a mainstay of the Institute, and he was so from the start.  He helped create the Institute, and went on to help create the complex systems that made Hubble the success it was.   He stayed with the Institute—and with Hubble—for the reminder of his professional career.

Rodger was totally dedicated to Hubble’s mission—through its crises, its challenges, and its magnificent accomplishments.  He was a key player in making the first servicing mission, the one that fixed Hubble, a success, and which, in turn, made Hubble into one of the world’s most impressive tools for research and discovery.  And he was still active in preparing for the last servicing mission, despite his advancing illness.

Rodger was also dedicated to the Institute itself, and to its mission of producing the best science that Hubble could do, using a dedicated team of scientists, engineers, and support staff, who thoroughly knew what the scientific community wanted and needed.

I first met Rodger in 1971. He was a new graduate student at MIT, and I was barely two years out of MIT myself, working with Riccardo Giacconi and his group at American Science and Engineering in Cambridge.  We had just discovered that many, indeed most, of the X-ray sources we saw were variable.  I went across to MIT, to convince the astronomers getting ready to launch a rocket that they should modify their detectors to better study the variability.  Rodger was the young student who helped implement the changes.

Our paths kept crossing over the next decade, as he worked on two other X-ray astronomy satellites at MIT, and I worked on two other X-ray satellites at Harvard.  While Rodger and I did not work closely together at that time, we both were doing research in X-ray astronomy, we both shared a group of friends and colleagues, and we both were involved with the operations of our respective satellites.

In 1981, when Riccardo was named first director of STScI, he asked me to come and lead the operations and data processing group.  Surveying the scene, it did not take long to realize I would need to organize two teams, one for each area, and decided that operations was going to need its own lead.  When I approached Rodger, he did not hesitate—he recognized a challenge when he saw one.

The rest is history.  Rodger moved to Baltimore and immediately became a key player at the Institute, helping in all aspects of the wonderful venture of creating a new Institute that could conduct the science program of Hubble.  Rodger was, in the words of the Institute’s first Director, a “force of nature.” He was the strongest demonstration of the power of “technical truth” (also in the words of Riccardo) in addressing all manner of problems. It is impossible to recount his contributions—they ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: from overseeing the total rewrite of the operations ground system, to writing an accounting program in FORTRAN, because the Institute’s initial business systems could not produce accurate budget forecasts.   Rodger was brilliant, even-handed, and totally honest with all his coworkers, inside the Institute and outside.  When Rodger offered an opinion, people listened.

Rodger eventually became truly the “master of Hubble.”  More than any other single individual in the world, Rodger knew what made Hubble tick, and knew the systems that supported and controlled Hubble.  This was recognized throughout the community.

Rodger was, as so many people know, a private person. But that does not mean that he did not communicate his feelings, his passions, his dedication.  Indeed, Rodger and I developed a deep relationship based on total trust.  In the first year or two of the Institute, I commuted from Cambridge, usually spending four days of each week in Baltimore.  Much of the time, Rodger and I worked in the growing Institute all day, then had dinner together, then worked some more.  We did not always have deep discussions, but we developed a strong bond, based on a shared understanding of our goals—and I think our personal strengths and weaknesses.  We knew that that we could always be honest about work issues, and even personal problems we chose to share.  When Rodger and Vicki got together, Rodger felt it was important for me to know, and immediately told me.  This was a wonderful, unique relationship.  I am so glad that they were there for each other through the years.

I think all people who knew Rodger—it is still hard to not say know Rodger—will agree he was a unique person:  his honesty, his comprehensive, encyclopedic knowledge about Hubble, his fierce dedication to technical truth, his ability to engender trust from everyone who worked with him.  His imprint on Hubble, on the Institute, indeed on the international research enterprise, and on so many of us as individuals, will last a long time.