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Oertel Retires as President of AURA
May 1, 1999
Dr. Goetz Oertel is retiring as President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) effective June 1, 1999.
Citing personal reasons, Oertel made his announcement at the annual meeting of the AURA Board of Directors and Member Representatives in Tucson on April 28, 1999. The Board has appointed Dr. William Smith as Interim President until Oertel's successor can be named. Oertel has had a long and distinguished career in scientific administration having served with NASA, the Executive Office of the President, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Energy before being appointed President of AURA in 1986.
Before Oertel's arrival, AURA, under cooperative agreements with the National Science Foundation, operated the National Observatories for Optical Astronomy (NOAO) which include Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) near Tucson, Arizona, the National Solar Observatory (NSO) at Sacramento Peak in New Mexico and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. Under contract with NASA, AURA also operated the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Under Oertel's leadership AURA has grown to include 29 member universities and 5 international affiliates. AURA has also become the managing organization for the construction and operation of the International Gemini Twin 8-Meter Telescope Project which is partly funded by the National Science Foundation.
AURA has pioneered new cooperative efforts in building and managing astronomical research facilities. The operation of the Space Telescope Science Institute has become a model for such arrangements and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has become the most widely recognized telescope by the lay public as well as one of the most productive scientifically. AURA is currently negotiating the agreement with NASA under which it will operate the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) which will eventually replace the HST.
A graduate of the Christian Albrechts Universitaet in Kiel, Germany, Oertel came to the USA under a Fulbright grant and earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Maryland at College Park in plasma spectroscopy and laboratory astrophysics. His research interests include broadening of spectral lines, plasma diagnostics, solar physics, instrumentation development, and engineering.
He views his tenure with AURA as the best time of his life. He is especially
proud of having brought outstanding people to AURA who, in turn, developed visionary goals for its Centers, many of which have become reality or are well on their way to fruition. The new relationship with its members and international affiliates, and a new corporate structure, enable AURA to operate effectively and to provide national and international leadership for the year 2000 and beyond. He expresses deep appreciation to the Board, to the representatives of the member institutions, to countless volunteers from the astronomy community, and to management and staff at AURA for their exceptional support and encouragement during more than twelve years in office.
In speaking of Oertel's years at AURA, Dr. Robert Williams (former director of STScI and of CTIO) stated: "Goetz brought AURA to a completely new level in his years as President. Consider the presence that AURA now has in international astronomy. As a Director at two of the three national centers that have been managed by AURA during his tenure as President, I can tell you that the staffs of the centers have had a lot to do with this. But, I will also tell you that the single most important influence on the excellent stature of AURA during the past 13 years has been Goetz Oertel. It was always a pleasure to deal with Goetz, even when the situation we were dealing with was a difficult one. He leaves an indelible stamp on our science, and I consider it an honor to have worked with him."
Dr. Sidney Wolff (Director of NOAO) recalls that "When Goetz took over as president, I asked him what he thought his primary task was, and his answer was "support the observatories." He has done that with total commitment, and he was always there when I needed advice, help, or just someone to talk to. Equally important, he was not there when I did not need him--his belief was that you should hire outstanding staff and give them room to do their jobs. He stuck by that, even when the going got tough. And the results are there for all to see--at NOAO, STScI, and Gemini."
Dr. Matt Mountain (Director of the Gemini Project) agrees: "Through the years I have known Goetz, it was in the really turbulent periods of this project that his support mattered most, and he was always ready in such times to back the project. His leadership will be sorely missed by all of us on Gemini. Throughout the Gemini partnership, Goetz's skilled leadership of AURA has earned him the praise of our international community and its Agencies. To quote one such international accolade: "Goetz has given AURA outstanding leadership through difficult times and has made a major contribution to the success of Gemini, and from that will stem many more international projects in astronomy." I believe Goetz, more than anyone else, understood the role of AURA and the corporate office in the complex world of national and international astronomy interests. Through his leadership he transformed the corporate office into a corporate asset, complementing and supporting programs such as ours."
Dr. Riccardo Giacconi (Director General of the European Southern Observatory and first Director of STScI) recalls that: "Through the stresses and strains of Hubble beginnings, I found Goetz Oertel and AURA always supportive. The political skills he brought to the job have contributed significantly to the acceptance of the Space Telescope Science Institute by NASA and to the definition of its role in the NGST era."
Finally, Dr. Bruce Margon (former Chair of the Board of Directors) sums it all up: "It will be difficult to imagine AURA without Goetz Oertel. His endless energy, optimism, and patience have helped to shape the astronomy of this decade and next, far more than many of our colleagues realize."
The Board of Directors can only echo these sentiments and express its sincere appreciation and thanks to Oertel for almost thirteen years of very effective leadership of AURA. The Board and the entire AURA family wish him well in his retirement.
Smith is currently Vice-President for programs at AURA. Smith served as a staff scientist with the Depaartment of Transportation and concluded a distinguished career in Congress as Staff Director for the Subcommittee on Space with the House Science and Technology Committee. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Texas A&M University in 1974 and carried out research on ozone depletion by fluorocarbons. His recruitment to AURA in March 1998 greatly strengthened the corporate office and its ability to lead the organization and work with the community.
In his first year, Smith played pivotal roles in defining the Maximum Aperture Telescope MAXAT, developing options for the future of optical and IR astronomy on the ground and in space, including Hubble and the Next Generation Space Telescope, and in mapping out the future directions of NOAO. The Board of Directors is grateful to Smith for being willing to serve as Interim President and looks forward to working with him as AURA moves into the next millennium.
Leonard V. Kuhi
Chair, Board of Directors
Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy