The Man Behind Hubble: Bob Williams

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The Man Behind Hubble: Bob Williams

Four weeks after space-walking shuttle Endeavour astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993, an ecstatic Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski waved a Hubble picture of the core of the spiral galaxy M100 at her naysaying colleagues. Today, Mikulski could host a Capitol Hill star party: The orbiting telescope has generated more than 100,000 photos of celestial objects, including a cemetery of dying stars, elephant trunks of dust and hydrogen gas twisting in the Eagle Nebula, jovian storms and aurorae, the rocky rings of Saturn and the colossal supernova smoke rings blown from an exploded star, to list a few. Hubble's pictures do double duty not only as congressional lobbying props, but also as screen savers, T-shirt prints, calendar photos, a background for the "Babylon 5" science fiction TV series and even planet trading cards to be provided soon to schoolchildren.

One of the most electrifying pictures of all, the Hubble Deep Field image began literally as a shot in the dark: the sum of 342 exposures taken with Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 in December 1995 of a black speck of northern sky. Although the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact on Jupiter may have generated a bigger media splash, astronomers still are agog over the Deep Field. Aides to Vice President Al Gore ordered a Deep Field poster from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which manages the Hubble's science program under contract with NASA. Borrowing a page from Mikulski, Gore plans to use the Deep Field poster to promote scientific research in the next millennium. In an age of cost-cutting and smaller-is-preferred, the $3 billion Hubble has demonstrated that bigger can be better: The telescope attracted 1,298 proposals for observing time during its next annual cycle that began in July, an increase of 30 percent from the previous cycle and more than had been received by any other U.S. telescope or NASA project. Ever.

A driving force behind Hubble's scientific mission, particularly the Deep Field, is astronomer Bob Williams, 56, who took over as director of the STScI a few months before the 1993 repair mission. Like Hubble itself, Williams began his astronomy career with high promise, then was written off as lacking focus. Both have rebounded spectacularly.

Williams is admired as an articulate champion of astronomy with a penchant for accomplishment. "There is not a devious molecule in his body," says Ray Weymann, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, who spent many nights collaborating with Williams in the quiet and darkness of telescope towers.
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