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Bob O'Dell - The Star Salesman


Not many people can say they've been the first human ever to lay eyes on something, but Bob O'Dell can.

In 1993, O'Dell, then a professor at Rice, was studying images of the Orion nebula — a dusty, gaseous region inside the Orion constellation about 1,500 light years away — that had been beamed to earth from the Hubble telescope. (More on that in a moment.) He noticed unusual dark shapes surrounding some of the stars, and soon realized these were protoplanetary disks — remnant material from 300,000-year-old stars — something no one, including him, had anticipated finding. He coined the term "proplyds" for the disks, and the name stuck. Speaking of names that stuck, it was O'Dell who first suggested the name Hubble (after the astronomer Edwin) for the remarkable instrument that had made this discovery possible.

"It was obvious to me that Hubble would be the most powerful new telescope built in my lifetime," he says, calling it "as big a leap over previous telescopes as Galileo's was over the naked eye." But it almost never got built.

"We were dead several times," O'Dell says of the project's many fits and starts. Common wisdom in the early '70s said that if you had $300 million to spend, you should build 20 copies of the best ground telescope in the world. (At the time, that was the Hale Telescope at Palomar Mountain.) The idea of launching an untested piece of technology into space met with plenty of skepticism — including some from the scientific community. O'Dell, who had resigned a comfortable faculty position at the University of Chicago to join the Space Telescope project, soon had to become its chief salesman in addition to being its chief scientist. "You can't just go to Congress and say, 'It's going to be fun and interesting — trust us,' " he says. "For a long time I felt like John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness."

After a series of setbacks ranging from slashed funding to the Challenger explosion, Hubble's baptism by rocket-fire finally came in April 1990. Not only was it the most powerful telescope built in our lifetime, it introduced a radical new ideology to scientific data. "In the past, when you came down from the mountain with your photographic plates, they were yours," O'Dell says, and sometimes that meant forever. Not so with Hubble: Astronomers who utilize the telescope have proprietary rights to the data for one year — after that, it enters the public domain. O'Dell attributes "much of the growth" in our understanding of the universe to scientists' being able to mine Hubble's archives. "That's one of the things we did right," he says.

O'Dell now holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor at Vanderbilt — another first — and has a pretty good record of getting things right. Even so, he knows he has to stay sharp. "You're only as good as your last idea," he says. An indication of how good his ideas continue to be: While only one in six Hubble research applications is accepted, O'Dell continues to earn observation time on the telescope he helped name and launch — something he enjoys more than the role of salesman. "I have the best job now," he says. And watching him pore over a batch of freshly downloaded data taken from a field of distant stars, it's hard to argue otherwise. —STEVE HARUCH

Photographed by Eric England at the Vanderbilt University Dyer Observatory.

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