Engineering & Applied Sciences

Lee Feinberg: From UR to NASA

Lee FeinbergWhen Lee Feinberg '87 dropped off his resume at Booz, Allen and Hamilton the fall after he graduated, he was dressed in rip jeans and a T-shirt. He had no idea the prestigious management consulting firm would want to interview him on the spot -- much less that it would hire him that day, rip jeans and all!

Or that this would eventually lead him to a career at NASA.

And yet, that's exactly what happened. Feinberg is the optical telescope element manager for the James Webb Space Telescope project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Getting there wasn't a straight path, however.

When Feinberg left the UR with a bachelor's degree in optics, he didn't have a job lined up, and wasn't particularly worried about it, either. This was during the Reagan Administration's Space Defense Initiative, based on shooting down enemy missiles with lasers. Optical grads were in big demand.

Feinberg, however, took the summer off to visit Europe and regroup. "It was probably the best thing I ever did, I was so burned out from college," he told students as guest speaker for the 2013 Hajim School Senior Design Day.

A Taoist perspective

The title of his talk was: "From UR engineering to fixing and building Space Telescopes, a Taoist approach to career management." So what does Taoism, with its stress on "going with the flow" of the Universe, have to do with an engineering career?

Consider: Booz, Allen hired Feinberg because it ostensibly needed an "optical" expert for an important government job. In fact, it assigned him to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant near Washington, D.C., which was under court order to comply with pollution standards.
Feinberg ended up working in optical disk storage, which did not require optical engineering skills at all. But the one-year stint did teach him about systems analysis and communications.

It also got him in the door at Ford Aerospace, which needed someone with experience in optical disk storage to work on the ground system for the space-based Hubble telescope.

And that, in turn, led to his hiring by NASA when a major testing flaw caused Hubble to send back fuzzy images that were not that much better than those produced by telescopes back on earth.

Do you begin to see why Feinberg refers to his career in Taoist, "going with the flow" perspective?

Hubble fiasco gave him a chance to use his skills

Coming on the heels of the Challenger space disaster -- a day that Feinberg vividly remembers from his student days – the Hubble fiasco put NASA on the spot. It desperately needed optical engineers to help rectify the problem. Feinberg finally was doing what he was trained to do, as one of the youngest members on the Hubble team.

"This was a pretty amazing thing for me."

Interestingly, a big part of determining the "trouble with Hubble," involved doing simulations based on those fuzzy images to backtrack to the originating defect. This was possible thanks to work done by Prof. James Fienup from the Institute of Optics. When the defect was identified  and a new primary lens built to remedy it, Feinberg was then involved in training astronauts to install it as part of a  Shuttle mission. This required astronauts to practice the repairs while submerged under water, to simulate weightlessness.

"It was basically all about practice, practice, practice for extra vehicular activities," Feinberg said. "It was an amazing experience to be involved in all of that." With Hubble repaired, Feinberg spent some time working on new mission concepts for NASA.

Feinberg rides the tech bubble

Then the golden age of optics hit, and Feinberg decided to ride the bubble.  He joined Dorsal Networks, a startup company hoping to use Raman amplifiers for undersea fiber optics, and to then connect the undersea to terrestrial networks, resulting in an all global network.

Feinberg, who is an avid jazz musician on the side, saw this as a way to cash in, retire early, and devote his time to music.

Three months later, the tech bubble burst. Then came 9/11 and Feinberg was back at NASA, this time tackling the daunting technical challenges of the James Webb space telescope. It will gather seven times as much light  as the Hubble, with the largest cryogenic telescope ever constructed. The telescope  must be deployed in segments and continuously screened by its own sunshield – and with no ability to service it once it is in orbit.

Webb people

(A full-scale model of the James Webb telescope was assembled on the lawn at Goddard Space Flight Center, and displayed during September 19 - 25 2005. The Webb Telescope team took a group photo with it. Seeing the people gathered next to it shows its scale nicely. Credit: NASA)

Already Feinberg is looking beyond Webb, to possible next-generation telescopes capable of examining the possibility of life on planets orbiting distant stars. The key to these efforts is visible nulling coronograph technology being led by UR graduate Rich Lyon.

It's been a fascinating ride for a kid who showed up in rip jeans with resume in hand!

Student work at LLE 'helped me along my way'

The one constant in all of this, Feinberg stresses, was the value of the experiences he had at UR. During his sophomore and junior year, for example, he  worked at LLE helping solve a problem that developed when the fusion energy lab switched from red to blue laser.

He converted a ray tracing software program developed by Prof. Robert Hopkins to do ghost image analysis, which helped explain why glass was breaking in the ignition chamber. He actually built several interferometers for testing laser fusion optics. And for his senior research project he investigated methods of achieving beam uniformity using computer generated holograms and random phase plates.

"My U of R lab experience allowed me to understand how interferometers and optical design software really work, which gives me great insight into commercial products used today," Feinberg notes. "That experience has been the key to helping me along my way."
In other words, a solid grounding at the start of the Taoist path will doubtless make the journey a more interesting and rewarding one!


(Ball Aerospace lead optical test engineer Dave Chaney inspects six primary mirror segments, critical elements of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, prior to cryogenic testing in the X-ray & Cryogenic Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched in 2014 to study the formation of the first stars and galaxies and shed new light on the evolution of the universe. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham)