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Russell B. Makidon (1971–2009)

Published onDec 01, 2009
Russell B. Makidon (1971–2009)

Russell Benjamin Makidon died at the age of 38 in Baltimore on June 22, 2009. Complications following surgery to remove a tumor cut his life tragically short.

Russ was a Mission Systems Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which he joined straight out of graduate school in 1997. He brought both the force of his intellect and his superb people skills to STScI, where he served the Institute and the broader community with extraordinary effectiveness. Russ was pivotal in helping to develop the wavefront sensing and control system of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). He was also a member of the NSF Center for Adaptive Optics at Lick Observatory.

Born to Cathy Ann and Peter Makidon, a worker at General Motors, on January 22, 1971, in Bay City, Michigan, Russ was an only child. He was raised by his mother, in Florida, and her parents, in Munger, Michigan. He is survived by his mother, his grandfather Benjamin Franklin Histed, and his father.

In addition to his interest in science, Russ was a talented artist and his sketches had appeared in statewide and national competitions. Turning down a scholarship at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he studied physics and astronomy at the University of Michigan, followed by a Masters under Stephen Strom at the University of Massachusetts. He measured pre-main sequence stellar rotation in NGC 2264 and other OB associations, providing insight on the role that circumstellar disks play in setting stellar angular momentum in young stellar clusters and associations. This work, and his extraordinary skills in facilitating scientific exchange, led to his co-investigatorship on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Orion Treasury Project.

Russ advanced the understanding of high contrast imaging, especially the relation between the properties of a wavefront control or adaptive optics systems and the physics of coronagraphic imaging. He developed a practical understanding of coronagraphy, performing timely and relevant numerical studies that laid a foundation for several recent extreme adaptive optics coronagraphs. He co-founded the Lyot Project coronagraph used at the US Air Force AEOS telescope on Maui. This instrument produced the first images of the disk surrounding the star AB Aurigae showing structure at the scale of our solar system. Russ' detailed modeling of AEOS' imaging prompted the US Air Force to upgrade their system with a fully-functioning deformable mirror, which improved its coronagraphic performance markedly. The existing P1640 integral field coronagraphic spectrograph on Palomar Hale and the state-of-the-art Gemini Planet Imager coronagraph, both dedicated to imaging extra-solar Jovian planets and protoplanetary disks, owe a debt to Russ' organized quantitative forays into the unknown.

At STScI Russ worked on several essential aspects of HST: its Fine Guidance Sensors, maintaining the telescope's focus, and helping to produce the Hubble Deep Field South, one of the deepest images of the sky at that time. In his last few years Russ played a key role in preparing to monitor and control the optical quality of JWST after launch. This crucial activity will affect the quality of JWST's entire scientific output. Russ understood the optical, mechanical, and operational complexities of JWST, in addition to appreciating its overarching scientific mission. He effectively drew together experts from Ball Aerospace, Northrop Grumman, Goddard Space Flight Center, JPL, and STScI, gathering diverse threads of systems engineering, optics, detector characteristics, observational, and operational constraints in one skein while tactfully holding aloft JWST's guiding science goals.

Russ had a special touch with people. He was able to draw astronomers, optical engineers, mission planners, programmers, systems engineers, project leads, in fact, anyone, into comfortably exchanging concerns, results, opinions, and more. His gift was in making friends with everyone he met, hearing and remembering their stories. These talents set him apart as a truly extraordinary person, as well as a highly effective channel of technical and scientific communication in any project that he worked on.

Russ combined a lively scientific interest with an eagerness to learn and apply new methods. As it became clear to Russ that a set of computer simulations he had set up would definitively outline or constrain future approaches, an excited glint would kindle behind his usually quiet gaze. He would then retire from further discussion, saying “Well, we'll see what we can do,” to re-emerge from seclusion hours or days later, visibly delighted with the swath his work cut through pre-existing uncertainties, a path his colleagues would necessarily have to study when charting their courses.

Russ was notable for his gentle and serene character and attitude toward people and things. He was the type of person you look for when you have a preliminary and confused idea in your mind, and you need someone to talk with, someone who has the patience to hear you and ask the right questions, to help you to settle things correctly and clearly in your mind. He was smart, with a genuine passion for science. He really enjoyed new, good results, and was often the first person to congratulate a colleague on a new finding or a noteworthy publication. Russ was also extremely approachable, and willing to help complete strangers. He would spend hours explaining the details of his work to a newly-met graduate student, working through the intricacies of detailed simulations of a point spread function affected by a cross-wind over the telescope aperture. However, on the racquetball court or in other games Russ displayed a highly competitive streak, giving no quarter to those he vanquished.

A talented artist, Russ appreciated the fine details and the seldom noticed beauty that the world has to offer. His smile was freely given, his quick wit and wry sense of humor was second to none. He had a special ability to bring people from many walks of life together; he was a loyal friend, a loving son and grandson, and a highly valued colleague. Russell faced his final decisions on uncertain and risky surgical procedures with a quiet, strong faith, surrounded by his family and friends. If the length of a man's life is measured in the number of friends he loved, instead of the number of years he lived, he lived longer than all of us.

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