At first, it might seem a bit odd. In a control room in NASA’s JPL laboratory, scientists and engineers sit, waiting for the next data stream from the world’s most advanced space-imaging telescope, Spitzer. Instead of lofty conversations about the bits and bytes beaming back to Earth to decipher the mysteries of the cosmos, the conversation could likely be about airplanes. That is because a large number of these space specialists are also private pilots and they pursue their fervor for flight with as much passion as they do man’s deepest exploration of the universe to date.
“Sometimes, if you walk down the hall, you’ll hear conversations about flying, interspersed with chatter about the existence of brown dwarfs. It’s amazing,” laughs Booth Hartley, a Spitzer computer programmer at Caltech’s Spitzer Science Center, and owner and pilot of a V-tail Bonanza. “Working for a project like Spitzer is great! But what makes it even better is that I get to work with pilots and talk about aviation.”
Launched on August 25, 2003, Spitzer—NASA/JPL’s Infrared Space Telescope—can observe infrared radiation or heat shrouded by cosmic dust, allowing astronomers to peer through obscured cocoons of star formations and into the hearts of dusty galaxies several billion light-years away—even those that are invisible to the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s so powerful that astronomers are hoping to soon discover the origins of the universe. In fact, its mere seven months in orbit has already produced images of cosmic worlds that no one else has ever seen: a glowing stellar nursery, a swirling, dusty galaxy and organic material in the distant universe.
“It’s a time machine and probe into the distant universe, which hasn’t been available until now,” says Spitzer deputy project manager William Irace excitedly. The excitement in his voice is a testament to the success of 10 years of hard work, making sure that all scheduling, budgeting and production elements proceed without a glitch. Needless to say, after years of putting such a massive project together, Irace sees Spitzer as a design that’s very close to his heart.
But, you guessed it, Irace is also a pilot. At around the same time he joined the Spitzer team, he decided, partly for after-work relaxation and partly because it piqued his interest, to build his own airplane—an RV-6 that he and his family constructed in his garage from the ground up. That meant drilling holes, wiring and even writing the POH. “I thought, it’ll keep me off the streets for a few years while we’re building the telescope,” chuckles Irace.
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