Director, Space Telescope Science Institute

Matt Mountain was appointed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in consultation with NASA to be the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in September 2005.  In taking over the 500-person institute responsible for the science operations of Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the future mission and science operations of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, Mountain was quoted by Nature (2005), “This is a very successful institution with a very motivated staff, and I think they feel that their past record justifies their continued existence,” he says. “That’s an understandable motivation, but it’s not sufficient. We’re going to have to earn our future.”

The Space Telescope Science Institute sustaining excellence through a competitive energetic vocal and motivated staff is critical to the vitality of STScI.  It is how that competition of ideas is waged and how diverse the constituency that feels empowered to participate in that debate, which is at the core of transforming STScI into a 21st century organization” (Mountain 2008).

Since arriving at STScI, Matt has worked with his leadership team to transform STScI into an adaptable multi-mission and diverse 21st century institute, while maintaining scientific and technical excellence as the hallmarks of the organization (see for example please read an article that appeared in Space News).  As part of this effort Mountain reorganized the internal management of the Institute, removing management layers and empowering a broader based Directorate Team which included all the Missions and Divisions, the creation of the Science Mission Office, the Project Management Organization, and the charting the Future of the Workplace Committee as a standing group to regularly advise the Director on issues of inclusion and workplace culture.

Hubble Space Telescope

In 2009 NASA went forward and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time. As Institute Director, Matt worked with the science community, NASA and the astronaut crew to develop science priorities for the Hubble Serving Mission 4 (SM4), subsequently representing the science community at the Johnson Space Center during the five days of astronaut EVAs (extra-vehicular activities).  

  Matt Mountain at the Johnson Space Center in May 2009 as the STS-125 Shuttle astronauts approach the Hubble Space Telescope, the first time the telescope had been seen since 2002.

 

Matt Mountain at the Johnson Space Center in May 2009 as the STS-125 Shuttle astronauts approach the Hubble Space Telescope, the first time the telescope had been seen since 2002.

Matt Mountain “on console” at the Johnson Space Center after the phenomenally successful completion of Servicing Mission 4, on the fifth and last day of EVA’s by the STS-125 astronauts, May 2009.  

Matt Mountain “on console” at the Johnson Space Center after the phenomenally successful completion of Servicing Mission 4, on the fifth and last day of EVA’s by the STS-125 astronauts, May 2009.  

The science productivity of HST subsequently increased beyond its already unprecedented level: the science community exploiting both Hubble’s new science capabilities and the Hubble Legacy Archive run by STScI.

As Director Matt started the new Multi-Cycle Treasury Programs in 2010 and the Frontier Fields initiative in 2013. 

The Institute today is also deeply engaged in preparing for the science operations of the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018. The objective is to ensure the astronomical community can fully exploit the enormous new science potential of this “HST 2.0” from day one.

Telescope Scientist, the James Webb Space Telescope

In 2002 NASA appointed Mountain to the JWST Science Working Group as the JWST Telescope Scientist.

He has worked with the JWST Project to convince the science working group to descope the Webb telescope's primary mirror to a more achievable diameter. He represented the scientific interests of the JWST science community on the Mirror Review Board that led to the selection of Beryllium mirrors. He co-chaired the Science Assessment Team in 2005 and was a member of the Test Assessment Team in 2010.  H

e continues to work with the Project, NASA, Instruments Teams, and the science working group to ensure the JWST telescope performance meets science requirements.

Background

As an Astrophysicist by training, Dr. Mountain has had a long-standing interest and commitment to exploring the Universe with new capabilities. His research interests have included star formation, advanced infrared instrumentation and the capabilities of advanced telescopes.  For the last 28 years Matt Mountain has led multidisciplinary teams and organizations that have pushed back the scientific and technical frontiers of observational astrophysics. His ph

ilosophy to leading such complex undertakings was summarized in an interview he gave to Gemini Observatory’s GeminiFocus magazine in 2009, “Building a telescope is a tremendously human endeavor, “ he said. “Once you realize that, life gets considerably easier” (2009).

With a degree in physics in 1978 and a Ph.D. in astrophysics in 1983, both from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London University, he went on to hold an SERC Research Fellowship at Imperial before joining the staff at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. During his seven years in Edinburgh, he worked on observations of star formation processes co-supervising four Ph.D. students, and then as Project Scientist, led the team, which designed and successfully commissioned the CGS-4 infrared array spectrometer for the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope in Hawaii.

Mountain became Project Scientist for the Gemini 8-meter Telescopes Project in 1992 and was appointed the Director of the International Gemini Project in 1994 to lead the team that designed, built, and commissioned the two Gemini telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii and on Cerro Pachon, Chile. This seven nation project, under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, was tasked with building two infrared optimized 8m astronomical telescopes on two separate continents within a Congressionally mandated fixed budget of $184M. The building of the Gemini Telescopes was the subject of the book, Giant Telescopes – Astronomical Ambitions and the Promise of Technology, by Patrick McCray, (Harvard University Press, 2006).

During his 12 years leading Gemini, Mountain moved to Hawaii's Big Island in 1998 to assume responsibility for the creation of the Gemini Observatory – formulating, implementing, and running the operations and development programs of the two telescopes. As part of the development program, he built up a world-renowned adaptive optics group, which has kept the Gemini telescopes at the forefront of observational infrared astronomy. A 10-year retrospective can be found via the June 2009 edition of the GeminiFocus magazine. 

In 2003, Mountain initiated a partnership with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) resulting in the formation of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy's (AURA's) "New Initiatives Office," which conducted a two-year study of the feasibility of ground-based 30-meter telescopes. The success of this study led to the inclusion of AURA in the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. Matt's related responsibilities have included memberships on the review committee of the California Extremely Large Telescope and the TMT Board.

Dr. Mountain has published over 100 research papers, articles and reports. He is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University and visiting Professor at the University of Oxford; fellow of the American Astronomical Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and a member of the International Society for Optical Engineering. In 2003 Matt was awarded the Gabriela Mistral Medal for excellence in education by the Chilean Ministry of Education for the Gemini Star Teachers educational program. It was the first time this honor was awarded outside of Chile.