After a few years of teaching and post-doctoral training in elementary particle physics at Milano, Indiana, and Princeton Universities, in 1959 Riccardo Giacconi joined American Science and Engineering Corporation (ASE), a 28-man private research corporation located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was given the responsibility to initiate space research activities for the corporation using Federal grant support. Starting with a few people, the Space Research and System Division (SR & SD) of ASE grew to approximately 500 people by 1970. The work of SR & SD included design and development of space hardware as well as reduction and analysis of data for serval programs of research sponsored by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In 1962 Dr. Giacconi's group succeeded in detecting the first extrasolar X-ray source. In 1963 the same group obtained the first solar X-ray picture by use of an X-ray telescope that was conceived, advocated, designed, fabricated, and tested by them. In 1963 Dr. Giacconi proposed an X-ray astronomy Explorer. The proposal led to a program of construction (1996 to 1970) followed by a successful launch in 1970. The satellite became known as "UHURU" and represented a major qualitative step in X-ray astronomy's observational capability.
Following the early work on solar X-ray studies, a major program initiated in 1968 culminated in the flight of the SO-54 X-ray telescope on the ATM's Skylab mission.
In 1970 the program for construction of a 1.2 meter X-ray telescope for study of extrasolar sources was initiated. The program was modified in 1973 and finally led to the "Einstein" Observatory mission, successfully launched in 1978. Dr. Giacconi had responsibility for the scientific as well as the management direction for all these programs.
In the late 1960's Dr. Giacconi assumed additional responsibility for the commercial product and educational divisions of ASE Corporation. He was promoted to Executive Vice President in 1969 with broad responsibilities for the activities of the Corporation. He participated in the acquisition of subsidiaries, the first public offering of corporate stock, and in the development of corporate facilities.
In 1973 Dr. Giacconi joined the faculty of Harvard University and became Associate Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics High Energy Astrophysics Division, which, in 1981, had a staff of approximately 100.
Among the most significant activities of the Division under Dr. Giacconi's leadership were the scientific direction of the Einstein Observatory program, preparation of the software and hardware for data reduction and analysis for Einstein, and the institution and implementation of the Guest Observer Program.
While the Einstein mission was conceived and executed as a Principal Investigator (PI) experiment, the Observatory was used as a National Facility by a large number of astronomers. In its lifetime it reached a level of community involvement comparable to that at a major ground-based National Center.
Dr. Giacconi served as the PI during the conception, design, and fabrication phase of the Einstein Observatory and acted as Director of the Observatory in the sense of being responsible for the setting of observational programs and the running of the Guest Observer Program.
In September of 1981, Dr. Giacconi was appointed Director of the new Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), located on the Homewood Campus of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He was also appointed a Professor of Astronomy in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of Johns Hopkins. STScI, managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) for NASA, is the center of scientific operations and research for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
Since 1981 STScI has developed a formidable array of hardware and software tools to carry out the scientific operations of HST. A highly competent and motivated staff of 350 (including 100 astronomers) was assembled in newly constructed facilities on campus. This staff assumed full responsibility for the science operations of HST immediately after launch in April 1990. Upon discovery of the HST mirror flaw, the STScI staff provided the technical and managerial leadership for the design of the instrument COSTAR. Astronauts placed this instrument in the HST during the famed recovery mission of December19, 1993.
Dr. Giacconi was appointed Director General of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental organization of eight European nations, in December 1992. ESO operates a number of observing facilities in Chile on behalf of the European astronomical community and completed construction in 2001 of the most advanced and largest system of telescopes in the world. Known as the Very Large Telescope (VLT), it consists of four 8-meter telescopes and several auxiliary telescopes. The telescopes can be used singly or as an interferometric array.
First Light of the first of the 8 meter VLT telescopes was achieved at the Paranal Observatory on May 25, 1998. The images that were obtained were of remarkable quality and demonstrated that the concept developed at ESO for the construction of the VLT, namely an actively controlled single thin mirror, yields a very superior performance. The angular resolution achieved even at this early stage was among the best achieved by any large ground-based telescope. The combination of angular resolution and the large area of the completed array yields a sensitivity to stars superior to any yet achieved by any telescope on Earth.
The VLT is the largest ground-based astronomy program yet completed and was carried out on schedule and on cost. Dr. Giacconi has retained an interest in research throughout this period and is currently responsible for several research programs in X-ray astronomy, including observations with the Chandra satellite launched in 1999.
Dr. Giacconi has authored technical books on X-ray astronomy and has written over 250 articles on astrophysical topics. In 1987 he shared the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics for his pioneering research in X-ray astrophysics. In 1991 he was appointed Professor of Physics in the Physics Department of the University of Milan, where he lectured on X-ray astronomy.
From 1987 to 1988, Dr. Giacconi served as a consultant to Montedison, an Italian chemical conglomerate, with the title of Chairman of the Board to Instituto Donegani, the research arm of the parent corporation. Initiated at the request of the President of Montedison, the purpose of this consultancy was part of an attempt by Montedison to elevate Instituto Donegani to a world-class level center of excellence in chemistry. Following a corporate takeover, this activity was abandoned.
Dr. Giacconi completed his service as Director General of ESO on June 30, 1999.
On July 1, 1999, Dr. Giacconi assumed the Presidency of Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), headquartered in Washington, DC. AUI operates the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) under a Cooperative Agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF). As AUI President, Dr. Giacconi continues efforts begun when he was at ESO for construction of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile. The ALMA Project is being carried out through an international collaboration between the United States and a European Consortium, with anticipated future participation by Japan.
Concurrent with his position as AUI President, Dr. Giacconi is a Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University.
In 2002 Dr. Giacconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics "...for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources."
In the last few years Dr. Giacconi has participated in several high-level committees, advisory bodies, and workshops concerned with U.S. science policy. The issues of how to best carry out first-rate research initiatives while insuring the achievements of the societal benefits that are the potential result of these activities have been among his major concerns. These societal benefits include scientific education and technical and management training at all levels with a view to improve the quality of life in our nation as well as our competitiveness in the international market place. To this end, the methodology and institutional settings that are chosen to carry out the research are as important as the ultimate scientific goals.