The Last of the Great Observatories

The Spitzer telescope targets the infrared portion of the light spectrum. It also happens to have been one of the successes during the Faster, Better, Cheaper times at NASA. George Rieke’s book The Last of the Great Observatories gives the reader a first hand look at the decades of events required to put this telescope into orbit.

Rieke’s book starts with NASA’s release of an announcement of opportunity in 1983 to build instruments for a telescope in this portion of the spectrum. The book effectively ends upon the initial release of data in 2003. In between is a manager’s view of the never ending requirements for changes and modifications. For the most part, the book deals with the downscoping of a multi-billion dollar research tool into a half billion dollar project together with the many occasions of emergency resuscitation just to keep the project alive.

Rieke’s writing style is active and engaging, even though the book is a bit like a management case study. If this were its goal, it’s achieved it. There are continual redesigns due to cost constraints or scheduling difficulties. There are issues about software control, inter-company interactions and governmental review boards. Many comments include reference to faster, better, and, cheaper; however, Rieke chooses to direct the reader to other references rather than tackle this subject in his book.

Thus, though this book is about project management, its contents lend little to this study area. Rather, there is the impression that a ghost writer took a manager’s day planner and made a story. At times it is suspenseful and exciting. The story moves along with the years. However, except for those people who were party to the events mentioned in the aforementioned day planner, there is little of note. As the project has come and gone, this book acts as a brief summary from one individual’s perspective.

In this sense, I was disappointed especially given the book’s title. I was hoping that the contents had information about the science to be accomplished by the telescope and perhaps a first view of some of the results. These weren’t included. References within some of the chapters and one appendix describe the technical aspects. A few paragraphs mention some finds. That’s all. Hence, this book is not for those technically inclined.

This book is directed to managers of technical projects, particularly in government, industry and university collaborations. If you’re a novice and thinking of or have already joined a planned space mission, this book would be of interest, particularly as a warning about being overly optimistic and having conservative expectations. However, if you’re looking for solutions, look elsewhere. This book is a particular case. It may contain ideas but, as it mentions, it presents no set process that will result in success. Or, maybe being malleable is the key to success for wide ranging research projects, as this seems to be the inclination of those involved.

The Spitzer telescope joined the Hubble and Chandra telescopes so as, all together, they covered a broad part of the spectrum of light. But, its development was anything but smooth as George Rieke writes in his book The Last of the Great Observatories. However, with dedicated researchers like Rieke himself, this project came to fruition and is providing valuable data in our never ending quest to learn about the universe.

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Review by Mark Mortimer