SIRTF Profiles: Tom Soifer
I'm Tom Soifer, and since 1997 I have been the Director of the SIRTF Science Center (SSC) on the campus of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Here at the SSC, we select the observations that will be done by SIRTF (following a competitive proposal review process), schedule the observations, and process the scientific data transmitted from the satellite. These images and spectra are then delivered to the proposing astronomer for additional analysis, and subsequently enter an electronic archive accessible worldwide. It's a big job (more than 100 people work at the SSC), but exciting and challenging, too.
I've been involved in SIRTF for more than twenty years, in various roles. To be involved in a project for so long takes either no imagination or great imagination! I hope it is the latter. I'm convinced that SIRTF will revolutionize our understanding of the universe, and I want to be a part of making it happen.
How did I get here? As a kid, I always enjoyed mathematics and science, and attended Caltech as an undergraduate student. During this time, I had the good fortune to work for Gerry Neugebauer, one of the founders of infrared astronomy. Under his direction, we conducted the very first astronomical infrared sky survey, called the Two Micron Sky Survey, in the 1960s. It was a tremendous thrill as an undergraduate to be able to visit Mount Wilson and operate the survey telescope by myself. [It was scary, too!] I also had the opportunity to follow Jerry Nelson, later the visionary architect of the Keck Observatory telescopes, and to work with Doug Osheroff, later a Nobel Laureate in Physics for the discovery of Superfluid Helium 3. All of us were members of Gerry's Infrared Group at Caltech. It was a rather high-powered group; we worked hard but also found time for fun. I learned that this science stuff can really be enjoyable. I still find it amazing that people will pay you for doing what to me is so exciting. It is this sense of wonder that has kept me in the field of astronomy ever since.
After Caltech, I enrolled as a graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I worked with Jim Houck and Martin Harwit, building infrared telescope experiments for sub-orbital sounding rockets. This was my first experience in "space" astronomy. After watching the relatively gentle launches of manned space missions during the 1960s, it was a real shock to me to see an Aerobee sounding rocket leave the launch tower at White Sands missle range in New Mexico like a bullet, with an acceleration of more than 10g, or 10 times the rate that a ball drops in air. I was sure that the experiment I built would never survive. Well, the experiment survived ... and so did I.
After a year at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts and four and a half years at the University of California - San Diego, I came back to Caltech in 1978, and have been in Pasadena ever since. I worked on the first NASA space infrared astronomy mission, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), starting in 1974. It was a thrill to see the first data come back from this satellite in 1983. IRAS opened our eyes to a new infrared universe, and it remains unquestionably the highlight of my career as a scientist. I expect SIRTF to surpass even that!