From Telescopes to Shuttles

From telescopes to shuttles article image

During a storied career in aerospace that spanned nearly six decades, Joseph Rothenberg, ’64 impacted almost every aspect of the pioneering, constantly evolving industry.

From the early days of the space program at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation (now Northrop Grumman), to repairing the Hubble telescope, and finally to the “new” commercial space industry, Rothenberg left his mark, collecting awards and accolades along the way, until his retirement in 2021.

Rothenberg, who earned an associate degree in applied science in electrical technology, credits FSC with helping launch his career.

“My acceptance into Farmingdale, starting with the admissions team’s advice to take bridge courses to prepare me for college, through the mentoring by a number of professors, the job interviews arranged, and of course, the quality of the education, provided me the foundation for continued learning and a career that was beyond anything I ever thought I was capable of pursuing.”

After graduation, Rothenberg started at Grumman, where he worked as an electronics expert with the space program. In this role he managed the development and operations of the aerospace ground equipment for the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory series of Goddard spacecraft, as well as testing and operations for spacecraft, aircraft, and submersible research vehicles. During his time with Grumman, Rothenberg and his family moved to Maryland, where he and his wife still live.

While working, Rothenberg earned a BS in engineering science and an MS in engineering management at Long Island University Post. He later was awarded an honorary doctorate in engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and an honorary doctorate of science from Long Island University Post.

Rothenberg then landed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and was named associate director for flight projects for the Hubble Space Telescope, one of his most challenging and scrutinized projects.

After the $1.5 billion telescope was completed and launched, blurry images from space began arriving at NASA. The telescope’s primary mirror was found to be faulty. Rothenberg led the team that isolated the problem and designed the repairs, which took almost three years to complete, earning him national and international attention and the top spot at Goddard.

Prior to that, Rothenberg was immersed in NASA’s manned space program, which enabled him to meet one of his icons. While serving in the Navy, he was stationed in Florida near Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) and tried to attend as many rocket launches as he could. He had hoped to see astronaut John Glenn lift off in 1962 and become the first American to orbit Earth, but the launch was delayed twice and he missed the third and successful attempt. After almost 40 years, Glenn put on a spacesuit again. In 1998, at age 77, he was cleared to fly on the space shuttle Discovery mission. Rothenberg was tapped to participate in NASA’s announcement of Glenn’s return to space. When Glenn landed after the nine-day mission, Rothenberg had the distinct honor of pinning the NASA Space Flight Medal on the space pioneer.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would have a chance to work in the space program, let alone meet John Glenn,” recalled Rothenberg. “I had lunch with Senator Glenn right before the awards ceremony and told him of my attempts to see his first launch, and at the same time realized what I was about to do in placing the medal on him. It was kind of the pinnacle of my career.”

The exceptional people Rothenberg encountered at FSC and throughout his work experience helped him realize his dream, and to go beyond it to imagine an even more elegant reality. “I had the good fortune to work with great people and very challenging programs, starting a few months after I graduated from Farmingdale in 1964,” recalled Rothenberg. “My education at Farmingdale and mentoring by a number of professors played the critical role in enabling what I consider to be a successful and rewarding career.”

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