No mission in NASA history has advanced science more than the Hubble Space Telescope, which is scheduled for its last servicing mission in May 2009. No individual has worked longer on the project and contributed more to its scientific success than David Leckrone.
“I’ve been a space cadet my whole life,” said Dr. Leckrone. “Even before there was a space program, I wanted to work on it.”
In realizing his childhood dream, Dr. Leckrone has helped spark the dreams of countless others who have drawn inspiration from Hubble’s unforgettable images and mind-blowing discoveries.
Dr. Leckrone took a job at NASA in 1969. Seven years later, he was assigned to work on the Hubble when it was in its initial design phase. Ever since, he has worked day in and day out to make sure this eye into the cosmos fulfilled the vision of those who said it would be the most important telescope since Galileo’s.
“David is the Superman of Hubble science,” said Dr. Laurie Leshin, deputy director of science and technology at Goddard Space Flight Center. “He is the Hubble scientist. There is no other,” Leshin added.
For the past 18 years, Dr. Leckrone’s official title has been Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. Preston Burch, who heads the whole Hubble project, describes the lead scientist’s duties as “ensuring that, from a science perspective, Hubble is doing the right things.”
Whenever any big decisions are being made about the Hubble, Dr. Leckrone is the voice of science in the room. He shapes the scientific objectives of the telescope and decides what instruments should be added or repaired on Hubble to achieve those goals.
“David is a tiger, and I can’t think of a better person who could have served this position,” said Burch. “His contributions have been indispensible to the project.”
The Hubble is widely recognized as one of NASA’s great success stories. It has done nothing less than change our understanding of the universe. It has allowed us to measure the rate at which this universe is expanding, helping us estimate the age of the universe. It has discovered galaxies billions of miles away, effectively allowing us to travel back in time. And it has established that black holes are the nuclei of nearby galaxies. Dr. Matt Mountain of the Space Telescope Science Institute estimates there are 12 independent discoveries made every week based on the findings of Hubble.
But the Hubble has not always been synonymous with success. In fact, it was long seen as an embarrassment.
The Hubble was originally scheduled to fly in 1983, but didn’t actually launch until 1990. When it did, a big problem quickly became apparent—it couldn’t see.
In early 1992, Dr. Leckrone took over as the Hubble’s lead scientist, and it became his responsibility to help lead the Hubble back to scientific success.
He defined and prioritized the requirements and objectives for the Hubble’s first servicing mission, and oversaw the development of the instruments that contained the telescope’s corrective optics.
The 1993 servicing mission was an overwhelming success and represents one of NASA’s greatest legacies to science, for which Dr. Leckrone deserves significant credit.
“To give up on the dream of the Hubble at that time would have been unconscionable,” said Dr. Leckrone. “I was lucky and honored to have the scientific responsibility for this project at the right place at the right time.”
Following the first servicing mission, Dr. Leckrone continued to provide scientific leadership in the definition, development and execution of the three subsequent and equally successful servicing missions in 1997, 1999 and 2002.
In the spring of 2009, the Hubble will receive its fifth and final servicing mission, with Dr. Leckrone once again sitting at the scientific helm. He says this last mission should give us a “family photo album of galaxies, from their infancy to old age” and help us understand how the Milky Way was formed. But Dr. Leckrone noted that “half of the Hubble’s most important discoveries have been completely unexpected,” so there’s no telling what else we might learn.
David Leckrone says he will retire after this last mission is complete and “the fun is over.” Reflecting on his service, he is quick to downplay the accomplishments of his 40-year government career, saying that he “stands on the shoulders of giants.” The reality is that his contributions to the Hubble have made him a true giant in the field of modern astronomy. You don’t need a giant space telescope to see that.