Auburn alum reflects on leading the development of the Hubble Space Telescope

Published: Apr 21, 2017
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NASA has called it the "most significant advance in astronomy since Galileo's telescope." It has been orbiting 340 miles above the Earth's surface since its launch from Space Shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Since then, scientists have used its unobstructed view of the universe to make more than one million observations about planets, stars, black holes and galaxies.

It is the Hubble Space Telescope—an instrument only intended to endure 10 years in space—that continues to broaden our understanding of the universe as it circles the globe. Auburn University alumnus Jim Odom led its development and helped make this exceptional view of space possible.

Growing up in the little town of McKenzie, Alabama, Odom's father was a farmer who owned a car mechanics garage. From an early age, Odom knew he wanted to be an engineer, which led him to Auburn to study mechanical engineering.

"I married my high school sweetheart, June Peevy, my senior year, and I worked in the Student Union building," said Odom, who now lives in Decatur, Alabama. "After graduation in 1955 I interviewed with several people. I particularly liked a company out of Decatur called Chemstrand Corporation, and I began my career there."

In the spring of 1956, Odom was drafted by the Army and sent to basic training in Jackson, South Carolina. When he arrived back home in north Alabama, his engineering background made him a candidate for a much different role within the Army.

"My next-door neighbor was a personnel director in one of the laboratories for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, where Dr. Wernher von Braun and Maj. Gen. John Medaris were leading the Army's rocket research and development team," Odom said. "There was a program that took engineers, scientists and mathematicians that were in the Army, and could place them into their professions. Dr. von Braun and Maj. Gen. Medaris could call anybody in the Army that had degrees that they wanted to utilize. I happened to fit, and they picked me to join their team."

Odom began working in the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's Launching and Handling Laboratory at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville in 1956.

"At the time, we were finishing up the Redstone rocket program and starting the Jupiter program, which was a 1,500-mile-range missile," Odom said. "I got to work on both Redstone and Jupiter, and helped with the deployment of the Jupiter in Turkey. In 1959, we began moving the personnel over to NASA and our group became NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center."

Odom's first assignment with newly established NASA was working on the development and launches of the nation's first communication satellites, which included weather satellites, lunar rovers, unmanned space probes and telescopes. Next came the Apollo program, which Odom joined in 1963 as chief of the Engineering and Test Operations Branch for the second stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle.

"I worked on that until we landed on the moon," Odom said. "Then in 1972 we began the Space Shuttle Program."

Odom was chosen to serve as the first external tank project manager for the Space Shuttle, an assignment he worked on for 11 years and six flights. In September 1981, Odom was honored by President Ronald Reagan with the Presidential Rank of Meritorious Executive for his technical and managerial accomplishments for the shuttle's external tank. He also received NASA's Distinguished Service Medal for his outstanding contributions to the development of the Space Shuttle and its successful first orbital flight test.

In 1983, after a year of serving as deputy manager for production and logistics in the Shuttle Projects Office, Odom was asked to take over the Hubble Space Telescope Project, which at the time was behind schedule and over budget. His task was to get the mission back on track, lead it through its final design, assembly and testing phases and have the telescope ready to launch in the fall of 1986.

"The design that we took over was great and we didn't change anything. We [got the funding to] put back into the program everything that had been taken out," Odom explained. "One of the key design features was that it could be launched from the Space Shuttle and serviced by astronauts. Hubble was the first spacecraft we had ever built that could do both. With the money put back into the program, we could add all the servicing capability back in, and that turned out to be very beneficial."

The telescope was ready to take flight when the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy occurred on Jan. 28, 1986. Hubble's launch was delayed four years until the next vehicle, Space Shuttle Discovery, could depart. After it went into orbit in 1990, Odom was recognized for the project's significant advances made under his leadership with a second Presidential Rank of Meritorious Executive from President George H.W. Bush.

For the next two years, Odom served as director of science and engineering at Marshall Space Flight Center, leading a group of 2,500 people. Then, in 1988, he was relocated to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to develop and direct the $24 billion International Space Station Freedom Program—the largest space station program in history.

"It was a distinct opportunity to be associated with the Space Station Program near the very beginning," Odom said.

After retiring from NASA in 1990, Odom was appointed president and CEO of Huntsville engineering firm Applied Research Inc., and then in 1994 began working as a consultant to Science Application International Corporation, or SAIC. He continues to support Auburn University, to which he credits both his engineering education and work ethic.

Through all of his endeavors on land, Odom's work has also continued in space, sending home images captured by Hubble for the past 27 years.

"The productivity of it, the quality of pictures that it's taken, is probably one of the most gratifying things I've ever been associated with," Odom said.

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