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C. R. (Bob) O'Dell
C.R. (Bob) O'Dell

C. R. (Bob) O'Dell

"My first remembered interest in astronomy was when my sixth grade teacher asked us all to write a one page paper on "What I want to be doing in 25 years" and I wrote that I wanted to be an astronomer observing with the 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory. How did I come up with this? It must have been "My Weekly Reader" a newspaper for kids, which was giving a lot of attention to the Palomar giant since it was just getting into operation then. I pushed my folks to buy me a set of optics for a small telescope when in the seventh grade and used these to build my first telescope and the Orion Nebula was one of the first objects I looked at.

My interest in astronomy was sustained by reading the monthly Sky & Telescope Magazine from cover to cover and building several additional telescopes, starting from scratch (actually blank pieces of glass and lots of grinding compound). Being a professional anything didn't seem realistic for a kid from a family where the parents had a total of 14 years of gradeschool education, but they encouraged me to go to a state teachers college and to take it from there. At Illinois State (then Illinois State Normal University) I studied physics and chemistry. Fortunately, Sputnik was launched in the autumn of my Junior year and the USA discovered that it had been neglecting the space related sciences. This was a chance not to be missed and I was lucky enough to be admitted into the newly revamped astronomy department of the University of Wisconsin. I emerged from there with a fresh Ph.D. three years later, headed to CalTech as a post-doc, then went on to Berkeley as an assistant professor. I bounced to the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago two years later and rose up through the professorial ranks, being chair of the department and then director of Yerkes for five years.

I left Yerkes for Huntsville, Alabama in 1972 to become NASA's Project Scientist for (what is now called) the Hubble Space Telescope. This was before the HST was an approved program, so that the early years were spent in selling the idea to Congress, to the astronomical community (many of whom were skeptical), and coming up with a preliminary design. After 1977 we were in the construction phase of HST and I left NASA in 1982 to return to research, becoming a professor at Rice University in Houston. I have recently joined the Physics and Astronomy staff at Vanderbilt University as a Distinguished Research Scientist.

That childhood look at Orion must have really influenced me because I've worked on the Orion Nebula region on and off for the bulk of my professional life (now 40+ years). It is still a case that many mornings I can't wait to get in to the office to find out what lies around the next corner."