Obituary: Andy Lubenow

Alexander (Andy) Franz Lubenow was born to Bodo and Helen Lubenow in St. Paul, Minnesota on January 4, 1956. He moved with his family to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1964 when he was 8 years old. He went to the American Community School there until 1973 when his family returned to St. Paul. While in Argentina he built his first telescope, including griding his own mirror. He never parted ways with that instrument. His time in Argentina had a big impact but the one story he would first relay was in getting confused about the appearance of the Moon since it appears "upside-down" from the southern hemisphere. This is the sort of detail about the natural world that most of us never really notice but helps describe the Andy's vision of the world around him.

A standard educational track did not follow for Andy. He spent two years at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. and then transferred to the U. of Minnesota where he remained for his undergraduate degree and several years of graduate work toward his masters in astrophysics. Later he transferred to the U of Illinois at Champaign, where he remained until Dr Peter Stockman hired him to work on the Hubble Space Telescope project. While in school he was a teachers assistant and also gave demonstrations of stargazing and taught night school. He was an excellent teacher and had a flair for writing. He wrote articles for a sailing magazine and later for a pilot's magazine.

Andy was a very practical, meticulous, steady worker -- attributes he combined with an understated and dry sense of humor. He was always able to find a way through a problem, no matter how sticky. If a job required rolling up his sleeves and getting it done just by working hard he'd be all over it. Even so, he'd always be on the lookout for an easier way. He had no patience for being forced to deal with stupid things for stupid reasons.

At work he was responsible for building the scheduling plan for scientific observations with the Hubble Space Telescope. His speciality was in supporting observations of objects in our solar system, or, "moving targets" as they are known at STScI. Andy was a part of the moving target planning well before the launch of HST. His in-depth knowledge and understanding of the needs of solar system observing and all the tools developed by the project (many were designed with his input) made life easier for those of us that worked alongside him on the planning and implementation of observing programs on HST. Those outside the walls of STScI whose scientific programs fell into Andy's hands could easily overlook his involvement. He made life easier for his "observers" but never from any desire for personal glory. No doubt a few of the observing teams appreciated Andy's role in the execution of a science program on HST but I suspect most took him for granted.

At play, Andy took on hobbies and activities that engaged his meticulous ways. In the basement of his house, purchased because it had a rare unfinished basement, he built an HO-gauge train layout that was truly marvelous. The attention to detail and the creativity in his layout was unmistakable. But, this hobby was by no means an obsession. Instead, it was a activity that had a beginning, middle and end. When he finished it he moved on to other things. Around the time that HST was launched Andy jumped into the world of sailing. This was not an idle whim but a carefully planned and studied activity. He truly enjoyed all aspect of sailing but I suspect he got the most pleasure out of exploring, in this case the Cheasapeake Bay, using a tool like a sailboat. Andy, like most dedicated sailors, took great pleasure is using his boat in concert with the wind and water to get around using natural locomotion. Perhaps an even greater love in this activity was navigation, something he did very well.

This love of navigation is a common thread between work and play. Observing moving targets with HST is a complicated navigational problem and this is the sort of challenge that Andy trived on. Later after he'd mastered sailing he embarked on a new hobby: flying. He studied for and quickly earned a private pilot's license, purchasing his own airplane in the process. One of his goals in this hobby was to do a cross-country trip. In June 2003 he took a couple of weeks off from work and flew solo from Baltimore to California and back. One time we were talking about a trip I had taken to Barrow, Alaska and I was commenting on an exciting ride I had on a bush plane. He had this to say, "I'm sure it [his trip to LA] won't be as intense as bush flying in Alaska, though to your pilot that was probably routine as well. When you're the driver, you have a deceleration curve clearly in mind, the exact point the car will halt is under your complete control, and you know you have plenty of breaking power in reserve. The passenger is convinced a pile up is inevitable. I bet it was the same thing in the plane. Half the battle for me in learning to land was to become convinced viscerally that I do have complete control of the aircraft, even in the vertical dimension. How exactly to effect that control, and the practice to do it skillfully were also factors, as well as developing a finer sense of vertical perspective, but the turning point was when the guts agreed that no we're not going to crash if we pay attention and don't screw up. You ought to try it; as Lindbergh put it, flying is the perfect mix of science, engineering, and art. Only the pilots know why the birds sing. (Though I'm sure the geese I heard flying over in formation the other night were swearing, and given the weather, I didn't blame them a bit.)"

In May 2005, Andy was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder, pancreas, and liver. Despite having access to some of the best doctors and treatment facilities in the world the end came all too quickly and he died on September 29, 2005 at the age of 49.

When discussing his illness (just days before his passing) he was very calm about the whole thing. Rather than feeling sorry for himself he just said we all gotta go sometime. "None of us is getting out of this life alive." During that same conversation I had called to tell him of the news that one of my asteroid discoveries had just been approved with a name in his honor. I asked if he'd like to provide any supplemental material to go with the citation, for posterity, or would he like me to cover anything in particuar. I read the following citation to him:

Lubenow               65885   Alexander Franz Lubenow

 Discovered 1997 Dec. 27 by M. W. Buie at the Anderson Mesa Station of
the Lowell Observatory.
 Alexander (Andy) F. Lubenow (1956-), Program Coordinator at the Space 
Telescope Science Institute.  Andy has provided exceptional support to the 
Hubble Space Telescope as an innovator and expert observation planner, 
especially for solar system targets, over the lifetime of HST."

He had nothing to add. He responded that the citation pretty much said it all and to say more would be to say less.

Andy was a pleasure to know and work with. He was a friend, confidant, and sometimes even a guiding inspiration. I was sorry when our life paths diverged but took some consolation in knowing that he'd be there each year at the DPS meeting showing off the latest that HST had done for solar system research. Those visits of his have come to an end now but the legacy of the thoroughly competent support work he's done for HST will live on. And somewhere, out in the dark of space, is a chunk of rock bearing his name.

Marc Buie
Lowell Observatory
2006 November 15

This is the unabridged version of the obituary that I wrote at the request of the American Astronomical Society. The abridged version will be published in 2007.