Chasing the Big Bang

FDU Engineering Alumnus William Ochs Helps NASA Look Back in Time

Mirrors being worked on for the James Webb Space Telescope. (Photo by NASA)
By Tom Nugent

When William Ochs, BS’79, MS’82 (Metro), was an undergraduate student at FDU in the late 1970s, he enjoyed the “good fortune” of taking a challenging course in digital design with an innovative electrical engineering professor named Howard Silver. That course changed his life.

Top: William Ochs, BS’79, MS’82 (Metro); center: five layers like this one will protect the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) from the sun’s heat; bottom: engineers test a scale model of the new telescope’s complex mirror conglomeration. (Photos by top, NASA; center, Northrop Grumman aerospace systems; bottom, NASA)

Dr. Silver was the first electrical engineering professor to introduce microprocessors to the FDU campus,” says Ochs. “He brought them into our digital-design class and started teaching us about computer languages and software, which were just starting to take off.”

Fascinated by the complexities of computer programming, Ochs was instantly hooked. Soon he was staying after class to hang out with Silver in a new FDU computer lab, where students could wrestle with “writing code” to their hearts’ content.

“Professor Silver was always available and supportive,” Ochs recalls. “He really nurtured my growing interest in data processing and software. For me that was the starting point in a deeply satisfying career that I had never dreamed might be possible.”

What followed Ochs’ FDU introduction to microprocessors is a remarkable odyssey. In 1979, he launched his career at Bendix Guidance Systems, where he developed software for the back-up computer for the Hubble Space Telescope. He then leap-frogged over to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 1983, while still with Bendix. His key assignment as a systems engineer there was to assist in the development of operations for the Hubble project.

In 1990, he joined NASA and eventually served as both deputy operations manager and operations servicing mission manager for Hubble. He supervised the operations of the Hubble during its first two servicing missions.

In 1998, Ochs became a NASA project manager. For the next 13 years, he managed the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE), on the sun’s effect on the Earth and its climate, and the Landsat 8 satellite, which records images of the Earth’s surface. Both missions are still ongoing today.

In December 2010, NASA transferred the gifted engineer to the next-generation, $8-billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program. Playing at the top of his game, Ochs has for the past five years been running a pioneering program that seems likely to change our collective understanding of how the universe was born — and which may determine whether the potential for life exists elsewhere in the cosmos.

(Left: photo by European Space Agency; right, artist conception, Northrop Grumman)

As project manager, he is responsible for masterminding the run-up to the project’s expected 2018 launch. The state-of-the-art JWST will be an immensely powerful astronomical tool capable of “looking back” down waves of arriving cosmic light to within about 200 million years of the Big Bang, which took place 13.8 billion years ago.

“The JWST is a follow-up to the Hubble telescope,” says Ochs, “but it is also a lot different than the Hubble. It’s much bigger, for one thing. The primary mirror is nearly 22 feet across and contains 18 different mirrors that together make up one giant mirror.

Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation as seen through the Hubble Space Telescope. (Photo by NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team)

“It will also be able to look at a different part of the light spectrum than Hubble does. It’s going to be looking primarily at the infrared [waves] so, essentially, it will be looking at heat. And that capability is what will let us look back to the creation of the first stars and galaxies.

“This is a very exciting project on many different levels. With the help of the JWST, we’re going to be looking back at where we came from, which could change our ideas about the universe we live in.”

With nearly 1,200 full-time individuals across multiple U.S., European and Canadian partners who are taking part in the Webb telescope venture, Ochs faces what he calls “multiple challenges across multiple projects” each day. Keeping a wary eye on potential budget overruns is crucial — as is keeping the huge project on schedule for its planned launch.

For the hardworking Ochs — who lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., with his wife, Cindy, and has two grown children — facing up to the daily pressures of running what may be the most ambitious enterprise in the history of astronomy requires “a keen sense of humor and the ability to keep your cool when the inevitable problems start to occur.”

Stargazing — Views from the Hubble include, from top to bottom, the “Spirograph” Nebula in the Milky Way galaxy; a bipolar planetary nebula, which is centered on two different points; and the planet Mars. (Photos by top, NASA/ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA); center, ESA/Hubble & NASA/Judy Schmidt; below, NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA), J. Bell (Cornell University) and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.)

Meanwhile, Silver — now deputy director of FDU’s engineering, engineering technology and information technology programs at the Lee Gildart and Oswald Haase School of Computer Sciences and Engineering — remembers Ochs as a talented and dedicated student during “a very exciting time in the early development of microprocessors and digital design. He took three of my classes between 1978 and 1980,” said Silver, “and we were all working very hard together on developing new assembly language and keyboard display.

“As a teacher, of course, it’s very gratifying to hear that he gained some helpful knowledge during those courses at FDU,” he continues, “and it will be very exciting to watch the new NASA telescope project unfold during the next few years.”

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2016 edition of FDU Magazine.