Never Give Up, How One Fed Changed Space – Plus the Weekend Reads

Throughout history, kids have look up at the stars and wondered. But when William Borucki gazed at the cozmos, he knew he was destined not just to dream but to explore and discover.

“NASA was the only place I ever applied for a job,” said Borucki a NASA space scientists at the Ames Research Center. “They do the most important research it in the world there, how could you want to work anywhere else? There is something so romantic about space.”

Borucki also led the design and operation of NASA’s Kepler space mission which discovered Earth-like planets as far as 1,200 light years away, adding an impressive capstone on a 50-year career that began with the Apollo program.

His outstanding work is being honored by the Service to America Medals, the Oscars for federal employees. Borucki told me that after 50 years of working for NASA it is nice to find that you’ve done something worthwhile, something that will last.

Overcoming years of repeated rejections, a persistent Borucki conceived, designed and now is leading a mission that will bring the world a step closer to knowing whether life exists on other planets orbiting distant stars.

The Kepler space observatory launched in 2009 and still in operation today. The observatory demonstrates a technique for discovering thousands of planets orbiting distant stars in our region of the Milky Way. Many of these planets are the size of Earth or larger, and a small portion of these exist in the habitable zone—the region around a star where water may exist.

“The result of this mission will be one of the most important scientific discoveries of any century, and will forever change humanity’s perception of our place in the cosmos,” said S. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Kepler is showing that planets are common in our galaxy, opening up the very real possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe.”

By the spring of 2013, the Kepler orbiting telescope had catalogued more than 2,700 planet candidates and confirmed 114 as planets. It has discovered the first rocky planet in the habitable zone of another star; a tightly compacted six planet system; the first pair of planets orbiting a double star; several planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars; and planets as small as the size of Earth’s moon.

But getting to this point was no easy task for Borucki. He faced more than 20 years of rejection.

“The thing about watching planets dim is that you are looking for very tiny changes, parts per million type of things and people believed you couldn’t build something that could captures those changes. In 1984 I wrote a paper saying it could be done, I started building photometers.”

Photometers measure the total light from many stars and looking for small and periodic dips in total luminosity that occur when a planet crosses in front of its star, the signature of a possible but unseen planetary body. As described in the paper, the project required high precision space-borne imaging detectors which had not yet been developed.

“In 1992 when the space mission rolled around, I started proposing my mission. They thought it was just a concept and that there weren’t good enough detectors to do the job so it was rejected.”

Borucki and his colleagues then demonstrated that detectors could accomplish the mission goals when corrected for systematic errors, but his second proposal was rejected in 1994 because NASA said it would be too expensive.
Undeterred, Borucki refined the mission to reduce its complexity and cost, but his plan was rejected for a third time in 1996 because he had not proven that the proposed instrument could make high-precision measurements of thousands of stars simultaneously.

Borucki and a NASA team spent the next two years building the needed instrumentation and demonstrating that it could observe 6,000 stars simultaneously. A fourth proposal was submitted in 1998, but that too was rejected because of concerns the system could not get the required precision in the presence of on-orbit noise. Borucki solved this problem, and on his fifth attempt in 2001, the Kepler mission was finally selected for flight—a process that took another eight years of work before the launch could take place.

“I had to prove this mission would work, people told us all the time that this wouldn’t work. My supervisors told me I was off track. But I just knew that this was something that could contribute in a substantial way. Kepler is only the first step and it has inspired others to surpass it.”

Working with the right people

“You have to work with people that inspire you and you have to have passion because working for the federal government has an awful lot of restrictions.”

You can find all our Sammies interviews here.

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