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Rodger Doxsey (1947–2009)

Published onDec 01, 2009
Rodger Doxsey (1947–2009)

Rodger Doxsey, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, passed away on October 13, 2009, after a prolonged illness. For the past 20 years, Rodger has been known to be truly the go-to guy for making the Hubble Space Telescope perform as it has. I have always argued that no person is truly irreplaceable. I still believe that to be true. However, my colleague and friend Rodger Doxsey came probably as close as anyone ever could to being irreplaceable. I know of no one who had a deeper and more thorough understanding of the workings of HST than Rodger had. In fact, there used to be a joke around the Institute, that when Rodger goes on vacation, the telescope experiences some malfunction.

Usually when we retire a computer, we make sure that all the information on it is stored elsewhere. Unfortunately we cannot do the same with the human brain. Rodger was always driven by one passion - the desire to make the Hubble Space Telescope the most productive scientific instrument ever. He has been involved with, and often led, every effort to prolong the life of the telescope, and to make it operate more efficiently.

Here is a description by another Hubble pioneer, astronomer John Bahcall, of the birth of the "Hubble Space Telescope Snapshot Program," a wonderful example of one of Rodger's many brainchildren:

"The Snapshot program originated in a lunchtime conversation between Rodger Doxsey and myself in the STScI cafeteria sometime in the spring of 1989. We were both late to lunch and probably were the only people in the cafeteria. The principal topic of conversation was the expected low observing efficiency of the HST. Rodger described the extraordinary difficulty in making a schedule that would use a reasonable percentage of the available time for science observations. Slewing was slow and changing instruments or modes of observing was time-consuming. Also, the scheduling software that existed in 1989 was not very powerful. I asked Rodger, without thinking very carefully about what I was saying, if it would be possible for the software he was developing to insert new objects in the holes in the schedule. I wondered aloud if one could improve the efficiency by choosing new objects, close to the directions of the scheduled targets, from a previously prepared list of interesting objects scattered over the sky. I remember that Rodger suddenly became very quiet, thought about the question, and finally replied something like: 'In principle, it is possible.' The Snapshot program was born at that lunch."

Rodger Doxsey was born in Schenectady, New York, on March 11, 1947. He is survived by his companion, Vicky Balzano, who also works at STScI; his father, John, of Cleveland, Ohio; and his four siblings, Martha Doxsey of Edmonton, Alberta; Douglas Doxsey of Ironwood, Michigan; Virginia Doxsey of Boston; and Mary Lou Shane of Duxbury, Vermont. As a boy, his sisters described, he used to be absorbed in crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles. At MIT, where he studied physics and earned his Ph.D., he became fascinated with rowing, and he kept returning every year to race with his old crewmates in the Head of the Charles Regatta. He was also very fond of the work of the American artist Alexander Calder, and a lithograph of one of his drawings hung on the wall of his office.

Very few people know of a ritual Rodger and I have developed over the years. During the first servicing mission and subsequent observatory verification, Rodger and I used to spend nights at the Institute, following all the tests for the instruments. After the performance test of each instrument, we shook hands ceremoniously. This became somewhat of a superstition, and consequently, in all the following servicing missions we continued with the same ritual. During SM4, Rodger was already too weak to attend all the activities continuously. We did meet, however, after the completion of SM4, and performed the ritualistic handshake to celebrate all the instruments.

Goodbye friend. Hubble's Guardian. To me, you will always be irreplaceable.

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