Introducing Guenter Riegler: Reaching for the Stars During 40 Years with NASA

bridges vol. 10, June 2006 / News from the Network

by Caroline Adenberger

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guenter-riegler-at-nasa-hq Building balloons, rockets, and satellites and sending them to outer space, making amazing discoveries - a childhood dream of many. Guenter Riegler, a native of Bad Kreuzen in Austria, did all of these things. He literally built "by hand" an X-ray detector, put it on a balloon, and sent it into the sky. Later, Riegler's X-ray detectors flew on NASA rockets and even satellites.
But Riegler has not only been an outstanding scientist: After almost 20 years working as a scientist at various NASA centers, in the 1980s he followed the call to become a research manager at NASA's headquarters in Washington, DC. A position that was originally scheduled for two years turned into a 15-year appointment, and the experienced hands-on scientist turned into a successful research manager.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}Growing up in Austria
Born in 1941, Guenter Riegler and his family moved shortly after the end of WWII from the rural village of Bad Kreuzen in Upper Austria to Vienna. Towards the end of high school, Riegler consulted a so-called career counselor to learn which profession would fit him best. "Everyone in my class went to this career counselor to get some tests done. I remember my parents coming along with me to the counseling, and the result of that afternoon was that I should become an electrical engineer." During this education, Riegler discovered his fascination with physics. After graduation, he applied to the Technical University in Vienna. "I took physics classes, primarily, some electrical engineering, also some chemistry. But I realized pretty soon that chemistry is not really my strength. So I stayed focused on physics."

But Guenter Riegler didn't only focus on his studies. During the summer breaks, Riegler earned some cash working as a tourist guide for student groups from overseas visiting Europe. And in 1961, one American student group arriving in Innsbruck, a busload of 24 college girls, would eventually change his life.

sandy_guenter_mendocino Riegler remembers the details well: "They arrived on a Sunday, 24 American college girls - and I was supposed to be their guide. Since it was a Sunday, I thought, well, to get acquainted with them I take them downtown to a five o'clock tea dance. And I danced with one after another. And there was this one young lady, when I asked her to dance with me, she replied, "No, I don't feel like dancing right now" - but I didn't give up that quickly and asked her if we then could go out in the evening. Well, to make a long story short, Sandy and I have been married now for almost 42 years."

Ph.D. in the United States
This personal reason, as well as Riegler's interest in physics, made him decide to go to graduate school in the United States. He finished his master's thesis on high-resolution X-ray detectors in Vienna and in the fall of '64 started his doctoral studies at the University of Maryland. In the spring of '65, a professor for whom he was teaching assistant informed him about available summer research positions: "He told me about summer positions at this institution called 'NASA.' I honestly had no idea what NASA was, and I'd rather preferred to go to CERN [the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva] for the summer. But since this specific NASA research center was apparently nearby, and my wife and I were expecting our first child in May of that year, I decided to stay."

At that time, NASA was about to start a new research area on X-ray astronomy at its Goddard research center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as the very first X-rays from objects outside the solar system had been discovered about a year before. Even today, one finds the following information on their Web site on the history of X-ray astronomy at Goddard: "In 1965, at the suggestion of Frank McDonald, Elihu Boldt initiated Goddard's program in X-ray astronomy with a series of balloon-borne experiments. At an early stage, he was joined by Peter Serlemitsos who had just completed his Ph.D. dissertation in space physics on magnetospheric electrons, and by Guenter Riegler, a University of Maryland physics graduate student interested in doing his dissertation research in astrophysics."

guenter-at-vacuum-chamber-1 After Riegler completed his doctoral dissertation on balloon-borne X-ray astronomy, he went to Caltech, one of the top physics schools. He did his postdoc work there and tried industry from 1971 to 1975 with Bendix Aerospace in Ann Arbor. With NASA funding, he had developed his own research area within the company, but then he got an offer that was irresistible to him: The Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

For Guenter Riegler, the most exciting change when starting at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) was being able to propose not only research to be carried out in the lab, or from balloons or rockets, but also doing experiments on satellites. He explains why this is much more desirable: "A balloon flight lasted for six to twelve hours at that time, nowadays some last for a month. A rocket flight, as another example, goes up, takes some measurements, and comes down again within 10 or 15 minutes. But in a satellite, the researcher has one, two, or maybe even three years of observing time, and one can observe more objects in the sky rather than a single object."

Heading for the NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
In early 1987, a stellar explosion, better known as a "Supernova," was observed from the Southern Hemisphere near the Galactic Center. This rare celestial phenomenon involves the explosion of most of the material in a star and results in an extremely bright, short-lived object that emits vast amount of energy. But a supernova not only emits, it also attracts - namely the full attention of all sorts of scientists. And they called NASA to take immediate steps: First of all, to create more observations with balloons, rockets, and aircraft, but also to have more research programs in general to observe and analyze the supernova.

NASA headquarters turned to the JPL for help with this particular situation. They needed a scientist who could help them determine which programs to create, and then eventually administer those programs. That's when Guenter Riegler entered the research management stage: He agreed to move to DC for two years to "help out" the headquarters on this issue. "It was a very easy decision, professional as well as personal," Riegler explains. "Since both of our children had left for college, our house was sort of empty-nested. And from a professional point of view, I felt it was a very natural transition from hands-on scientist to research manager. I think it is a good move to hire someone with actual experience in the field, rather than a bureaucrat who only goes by rules and has no understanding of the science itself."

Apparently people at NASA headquarters liked Riegler's work. After the agreed upon two years, he was extended for another year. Eventually, he was offered a civil servant position in the senior executive service. "This was a very attractive offer and I decided to accept it. One needs to be a US citizen to become a civil servant, and so it happened that after more than 20 years in the US, I applied for citizenship. I finally got it by mid- '99, at the same time my civil service position came through - both of them seem to have in common that it takes endless reviews and exams and bureaucracy before they are finally granted . . ."

The "Senior Review" Process
One of the major accomplishments during Guenter Riegler's career as a research manager was the development of the so-called "senior review" process for operating (flying) space missions in astrophysics.

"The problem we had to face," Riegler explains, "was that we had too many missions and not enough budget. So, although many missions were producing good science, making new exciting observations, there was just not enough money for all of them. And so the question was how to decide between infrared observations and, let's say, an optical and an X-ray observation, which do totally different science. How do you compare and how do you decide on which one should get extended, which should get more money, on which to reduce the money, or which to completely turn off? And no matter how you decide, there will be some people who are unhappy with your decision."

With the "senior review" process, Riegler managed to get independent, unbiased, outside-NASA scientific advice on which missions to extend and which missions to trim or to terminate, including advice on funding for mission operations and grants to participating scientists. For each review, typically held every two years, he convened a panel of scientists with expertise or direct experience with at least two of the missions under review. Even if this process couldn't avoid trimming or terminating some missions, at least the people and the scientists involved in those missions accepted and respected the decision since it was made by an unbiased scientific committee.

Managing the Science Directorate at NASA's Ames Research Center
In late 2002, Guenter Riegler accepted a position as director of science at Ames Research Center in California. This new challenge included managing the science directorate for space science (i.e., astrophysics and planetary sciences), astrobiology, life sciences, and earth sciences research and flight missions, with full management responsibility for about 500 co-workers.

Daily life as director of science was, in large part, interacting with headquarters and dealing with the division directors at Ames. But one "personal issue" on which Riegler put a special focus was the transition to so-called "Full Cost Management (FCM)." Riegler educated researchers, engineers, and accountants about how to effectively and efficiently transition from business-as-usual to FCM and gave several tutorials on the topic at Ames. As a result of his efforts, researchers and engineers within the Astrobiology & Space Research, as well as other NASA entities, learned how to convert their budget needs to FCM, and did so early enough in the fiscal year to ensure that they received appropriately increased funding levels.

Riegler also advocated a change in the whole proposal review process at NASA to deal with the "Full Cost Accounting" that came with the FCM: "Before FCM, civil servant scientists were at an advantage compared to university scientists since their salaries were paid from a separate budget account. Civil Servants charged between $10k and $30k as full-year-equivalent costs, while university scientists charged full-year-equivalent salaries and overhead ranging from $140k at a small university to $220k at a prestigious university. However, under Full Cost Accounting, civil servant salaries had to be explicitly charged but huge overhead charges at NASA centers were also added. Now the full-year-equivalent cost of a civil servant at the Ames Research Center ranged from $320k to almost $360k, putting them at a great disadvantage compared to university-based scientists," Riegler explains.

guenter_farewell_nasa He therefore recommended that the peer review process for proposals should be changed: Instead of giving reviewers the full individual proposals including budget requests, they should receive only the full science proposals plus a statement of the amount of time each scientist would spend on the proposed research. In 2005, after more than two-and-a-half years of advocating this change, the Science Directorate at NASA Headquarters accepted Guenter Riegler's recommendation as policy.

Guenter Riegler - the filmmaker
In October 2005, after four decades with the agency, Guenter Riegler officially retired from NASA. He and Sandy now live in their retirement home in Mendocino, California. Following the role model of his wife, who retired three years ago after a career as a gerontologist, he now spends his time with things he didn't have time to do during his professional career. "I want to do new things I didn't do before in my life. For example, I took classes in digital storytelling and just produced my first little movie on our life here in Mendocino. It's fun, and I want to stay mentally active - and that means for me not just playing cards." Whether at NASA or as a "little" California filmmaker, Guenter Riegler has always reached for the stars - and has come far closer to reaching them than most people ever dream of.



Goddard's Space Flight Center Website:{/access}