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Alexander Franz Lubenow (1956–2005)

Published onDec 01, 2006
Alexander Franz Lubenow (1956–2005)

Alexander (Andy) Franz Lubenow, Program Coordinator at the Space Telescope Science Institute, was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder, pancreas, and liver in May 2005 and died on 29 September 2005. He was forty-nine.

Andy was born to Bodo and Helen Lubenow in St. Paul, Minnesota on 4 January 1956. In 1964 at the age of eight, he moved with his family to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and attended the American Community School there until returning with his family in 1973 to St. Paul. Argentina had a big impact on Andy's future as an astronomer. He later recalled how he had observed and was puzzled by the "upside-down" appearance of the Moon in the southern hemisphere. In Argentina, he built his first telescope using a mirror he had ground himself. He never parted ways with that instrument.

Andy did not follow a standard educational track. He spent two years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, before transferring to the University of Minnesota, where he earned his bachelor's degree and began work towards a master's degree in astrophysics. Later he transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he remained until Dr. Peter Stockman hired him to work on the Hubble Space Telescope project. While in school, he worked as a teacher's assistant, taught night school, and gave demonstrations of stargazing. He was an excellent teacher and had a flair for writing. He later wrote articles for a sailing magazine and a pilot's magazine.

Andy was a very practical, meticulous, and steady worker, attributes that he combined with an understated and dry sense of humor. He was always able to find a way through a problem, no matter how sticky. If a job required him to roll up his sleeves and get it done through hard work, he would persevere. Nevertheless, he was always on the lookout for an easier way. He had no patience for being forced to deal with stupid things for stupid reasons.

At work at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Andy was responsible for scheduling and coordinating scientific observations with the Hubble Space Telescope. He gave particular support to observations of solar system objects (or "moving targets" as they are known at STScI), even before the launch of the Hubble. His in-depth knowledge of the needs of solar system observing and his understanding of all the tools developed by the project (many designed with his input) made life easier for those that worked alongside him on the planning and implementation of observing programs on the HST. Astronomers who worked outside the walls of STScI might easily have overlooked Andy's involvement in making their scientific programs a success. Andy quietly helped "his observers" without any desire for personal glory. Although a few of the observing teams no doubt appreciated Andy's role in the execution of their HST program, most likely took him for granted. At the time of his death, Andy had worked on 465 HST programs, which have so far resulted in 1041 published papers.

At play, Andy approached hobbies in his meticulous way. He purchased a house for its unfinished basement so that he could creatively lay out an HO-gauge model train set. The railroading hobby was by no means an obsession, but an activity with a beginning, middle, and end. When Andy finished his layout, he moved on to other things. Around the time that the HST was launched, Andy took up sailing. Like the model-train hobby, this was not an idle whim but a carefully planned and studied activity involving locomotion. While Andy enjoyed all aspects of sailing, he took greatest pleasure in using his sailboat, named Spica, as an instrument to explore the Chesapeake Bay. Like most dedicated sailors, he also enjoyed using his boat in concert with the wind and water to get around naturally. He was a fine navigator.

Andy's love of navigation was a common thread between his work and play. To track and observe moving targets with the HST is a complicated navigational problem and the type of challenge upon which Andy thrived.

After he had mastered sailing, he embarked on a new hobby: flying. He studied for and quickly earned a private pilot's license, purchasing his own Piper Cherokee in the process. One goal —a cross-country trip— was accomplished in June 2003, when he flew solo from Baltimore to Los Angeles and back. "You ought to try it," he told me. "As Lindbergh put it, flying is the perfect mix of science, engineering, and art. Only the pilots know why the birds sing....although I'm sure the geese I heard flying over[head] in formation the other night were swearing, and given the weather, I didn't blame them a bit!"

When discussing his illness just days before his death, Andy was very calm about the whole thing and joked that "none of us is getting out of this life alive." It was during this conversation that he first heard the news that an asteroid was to be named in his honor. I read him the citation and asked for his comments:

Lubenow 65885 Alexander Franz Lubenow

Discovered 1997 Dec. 27 by M. W. Buie at the Anderson Mesa Station of the Lowell Observatory. Alexander (Andy) F. Lubenow (1956-), Program Coordinator at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Andy has provided exceptional support to the Hubble Space Telescope as an innovator and expert observation planner, especially for solar system targets, over the lifetime of HST.

He had nothing to add. He responded that the citation pretty much said it all, and to say more would be to say less.

Andy was a pleasure to know and work with. He was a friend, confidant, and sometimes even a guiding inspiration. When our paths diverged, I took some consolation in knowing that I would see him each year at the DPS meeting showing off the latest that the HST had done for solar system research. His visits have now come to an end but his legacy will live on. And somewhere, out in the dark of space, is a chunk of rock bearing his name.

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