May 28

Remembrance of Goetz Oertel

Head shot of Goetz Oertel

Goetz Oertel at the Gemini North Telescope dedication ceremony in November 1999. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

It is with great sadness that we learned this week of the recent passing of former AURA President, Dr. Goetz Oertel. 

Matt Mountain, current AURA president, commented, “Goetz had a profound impact on many of us at AURA. I am particularly grateful for the wise counsel and considerable support he gave me. We offer our deepest thanks and condolences to his wife Brigitte, and his family.”

Longtime colleague Bob Williams, former Director of Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), wrote about Goetz Oertel’s contributions to AURA:

Goetz Oertel became President of AURA in 1985 at a time when the Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo 4-m telescopes were actively in use, and Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) was working intensely to have operational aspects of the Hubble telescope ready for its launch. The AURA offices had recently been moved from Tucson Arizona to Washington, DC to maintain a closer presence to its funding agencies the National Science Foundation and NASA, and to the political decision making in Congress.  

As a solar physicist with research experience in atomic and molecular physics, coupled with managerial experience from having been chief of solar physics at NASA, and then director of nuclear energy facilities (including Savannah River Site) for the Dept. of Energy, Goetz had developed the personal qualities to deal with political and scientific decision makers comfortably and effectively.

Among the notable accomplishments of AURA during Goetz’s presidency were the approval and development of the international Gemini Observatory and telescopes, the launch, early servicing missions, and operation of Hubble Space Telescope, and the broadening of AURA membership beyond its original university signatories to include numerous domestic and international university members. Arguably the most serious issue to confront AURA during Goetz’s 13-year tenure was the handling of the Hubble telescope’s initial spherical aberration. He was skillful in remaining behind the scenes while dealing privately with the top leaders of NASA, the Hubble Project at Goddard Space Flight Center, and the committees of science and technology in both the House and Senate. His efforts kept the astronomical community, and especially STScI involved in the planning, and all meetings related to repairing Hubble on an even keel.  

Goetz was always a pleasure to talk with, even when giving his annual performance evaluations and providing you with information and opinions you did not necessarily want to hear. His advice was usually on the mark, and he was symmetric in being able to receive advice graciously that he, himself did not want to hear. Those of us who dealt with Goetz in both good and bad times always found him to be a steady contributor to plans that made progress, and in a way that brought out the positive in people who implemented them. The end result was routinely improved science.