We Observe by Anthony Mallama

NASA/GSFC (Goddard Spaceflight Center)

We Observe by A. Mallama
1 Youthful Enthusiasm
2 The Moon and Vietnam
3 The Observing Dynasty
Public Awareness
Indian Hill
What Now?

Updated January 18, 2002

16 Inch Stokes Reflector at Indian Hill Observatory

The 16" Stokes Reflector

 Special Photos:
November 2001 Aurora
November 18 Leonid Meteors


The club has been a major influence in the lives of many of us. An important change in my life happened when Larry Lovell encouraged me to study astronomy in college. I did so and later went on to obtain a Master's degree. My degrees enabled me to get my foot in the door with a NASA contractor in 1975. Since that time, I have been at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. This in turn affected the lives of many other members who have also chosen to come here. Now 6 of us have put in a total of 32 man-years of work supporting NASA. The story of our lives in Maryland and our work at NASA is told in this chapter.

I arrived at GSFC during the final days of Apollo. In fact, the last Saturn rocket put the last Apollo command module into earth orbit for a rendezvous with a Russian Soyuz crew just one week after I started work. My first assignment was to write a data processing program for a scientific instrument on the Atmosphere Explorer-C satellite. I started work in July and the Explorer was to be launched in October, so I had to work long and hard to finish in time. When the launch date arrived, my program was ready. I produced plots of upper atmospheric densities, fully calibrated for instrumental effects. About this time, I learned that the instrument on the Explorer was a prototype for one being developed for Pioneer Venus. My next assignment was to develop a program to simulate the impact of the Venusian atmosphere on the instrument to aid engineers in their design.

Early in 1976, I transferred to the astronomy section, which was preparing for two orbiting telescope missions. The first one, the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE), was only two years away from launch. Among other things NASA needed was a model of ultraviolet stellar flux for selecting exposure times. I was one of the astronomers who created the model. The second mission was still in its infancy, but I knew that it would one day far overshadow IUE. This project was the Space Telescope (ST). At that time, it was still just an idea with no hardware and practically no money. ST is now a 2.4 meter instrument of incredible potential. It should routinely resolve one-tenth of a second of arc and reach 30th magnitude stars when it is launched.

Along Comes Tom

In 1978, I was visited by Tom Quesinberry. He was impressed by NASA and inquired about the possibility of working there. IUE had just been launched earlier that year, and there was an opening for a new person in the photographic darkroom. Tom had some experience so I was able to have him hired. It was a great feeling to have another club member working with me at NASA's space observatory ground station. After work, Tom and I frequently used the 12-inch amateur telescopes and refined our astrophotography skills. Tom proved to be a fast learner and had an aptitude for computer operations so promotions came fast for him.

In 1980 Tom returned to Cleveland to finish his Associate's degree and then returned to GSFC in 1981. This time he took a position on the Landsat project, operating their VAX computers. Next he transferred to the ST project. He remained in that position until 1986, when he returned to Chagrin Falls, the place where it had all started.

About Six Months

George Gliba was recruited by Tom in the autumn of 1979. Tom had heard about a job making computerized finder charts for IUE. He felt George would enjoy the work and he could apply his astronomy background. George got a haircut, came down for the interview, and was hired. We had a good time working together. In fact, Tom had entered a softball team in the Goddard Softball Association in 1979, so we played together in addition to working together. It was reminiscent of the old days when the club had put together a softball team to play on the Portage Street fields in Solon.

George became active in the Goddard astronomy club where he has been an officer and a leader. He has participated in many observing trips and other activities. One of his most treasured memories must be the time he joined a group of space activists from the University of Maryland on a trip to Kennedy Space Center. They saw the first launch of the Space Shuttle. George, Tom and a Maryland amateur they met combined to build a 12 1/2-inch telescope some years ago. This 'scope is F8 and, under the right conditions, gave dramatic views of the planets.

George followed Tom to the Landsat project, where he gained valuable VAX experience. This experience would come in handy a few years later when George also joined the ST project. George has been at GSFC for over 8 years now, though when he arrived, he said he thought he'd stay about six months.

Family Man

The club's membership at Goddard stabilized at 3 for the next 5 years. Then Ian Cooper joined Tom and George at Landsat in 1984. Like George, Ian benefited from his association with the VAX computer and, like George, he transferred to ST. Ian and George are patiently waiting for the ST launch. Originally scheduled for 1983, the launch had to be delayed due to slippage in the telescope construction, then the Shuttle Challenger accident of 1986 delayed it even further. The best bet is that ST will be launched in 1989 or 1990.

Ian moved to Maryland from Ohio with his family. Ian's children Ian Thomas and Jessica are older than my daughters Halley and Celeste, but they show an interest in one another. Ian's wife Sherri and my wife Jeanne have became friends.

The Captain

Dan Rehner visited us in 1985. He was in the middle of a backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail that had already taken him from Georgia to Virginia. Tom drove out to get him and showed Dan NASA and Washington. We had a star party for Dan at my house. The atmosphere was calm that night and we had a superb view of Saturn in my 6-inch F15 refractor. The following year, Tom, George and Ian identified another job opportunity and made it possible for Dan to join us.

There are few people I know who enjoy their job so much as Dan. His current assignment may be the most purely astronomical of all our jobs. Dan works at the ST Science Institute in Baltimore. He works on the Guide Star Catalog, which is by far the most ambitious star catalog ever created. Most catalogs have a few thousand stars. This one has to support ST, so it will have 20,000,000 stars! The monumental project is being accomplished by digitizing Schmidt survey plates that cover the entire sky. Among other things, Dan views the plates in detail while they are being scanned, and helps prepare the charts of photoelectrically observed stars from each plate. These stars are used to calibrate magnitudes. Dan and I always have something of interest to discuss, since I did a lot of the photoelectric photometry.

Very Long Baseline Interferometry

By 1983, I had been working on ST for 7 years. My last job was to plan and help execute the photometric calibration of the Guide Star Catalog. It took about 3 years and, during that time, I traveled to Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile 7 times. On most nights, I carried out the photometry program. On nights that I was unable to do photometry for one reason or another, I was free to explore the southern sky for my own pleasure from the 7,000 foot mountaintop in the most arid desert in the world. Views of Omega Centauri, Eta Carina, and the Magellanic Clouds through 16, 24, and 36-inch telescopes doubled the pleasure of astronomy that I had known in the north.

In addition, these finely figured and collimated instruments gave spectacular views of Jupiter and Saturn. On several nights, I spotted Neptune's moon Triton and, one night, I observed all of the planets in the solar system.

I had finished my part in the photometry program and, with the launch of ST still years away, I decided to make a change. I switched to a radio astronomy technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). By correlating the signal from two or more telescopes thousands of miles apart, scientists have been able to achieve resolving power in the radio spectrum that is measured in units of 0.0001 arcsecond. NASA is applying this technique to studies in astrometry, nutation, plate tectonics (continental drift), and in the study of the Earth's core. Radio astronomy was new to me and I've been making my way up the learning curve since 1983. In the meantime, all the data is at my disposal and I've sure enjoyed playing with it.


VLBI is one of the few NASA science projects that was not devastated by the Shuttle Challenger accident. In fact, we have grown slightly. In August 1987, we identified the need for a new person on the project, someone with computer ability as well as mechanical engineering experience. I recommended Doug Caprette for the job and he was hired in October.

Most of us came from Ohio to Maryland with very few belongings. I started out here with only a sleeping bag and a lamp.  Doug, however, came with a fleet of telescopes including a 12 1/2-inch. Doug and I are both building 17-inch 'scopes now.

Doug has a high aptitude for technical work and his degree in Physics will be a benefit in his career at NASA. He is currently working on a report of VLBI observational results, and his next job will be to study the flexure of the giant radio antenna dishes due to gravitation and wind loading.

Space to Grow

Our experiences at GSFC have been good for most of us. We have been able to participate in the activities that we dreamed about when we were kids, and we are doing something that we believe in for a living. We are all looking forward to the time when NASA will have its full launch capability again. In the next decade, we expect to be a part of the team that launches Space Telescope, Ulysses, Galileo, Mars Observer, Cosmic Background Explorer, and other scientific missions. The more distant future will bring even more exciting science projects, as well as the possibility of a manned expedition to Mars and a permanent colony on the Moon.

Click here to proceed to the next chapter, Expeditions