When Gary Fouts first looked through a telescope at the age of 12-years-old, the Santa Monica College professor had no idea he would one day be staring out an asteroid bearing his name.
Today, Fouts is a part-time astronomy professor at SMC but the 30-year professor has never lost his passion for the stars, which pulled him into the field of astronomy long before some of the students he teaches today were even born.
“I was about 12-years-old when my dad took me to Griffith Park Observatory, and I looked at Saturn before I started asking the telescope operator lots of questions,” Fouts said as he detailed the beauty of the night sky and the mysteries it holds. “My dad saw I was super interested in what I was looking at so he got me into an amateur astronomy club at Griffith and would drive me there every other week. So here I am at 12-years-old and I just realized, ‘Hey, I want to be an astronomer,’ so I got a telescope that year.”
At first, Fouts had no idea how to use the optical instrument, which is ironic considering he would later go on to operate machines like the Hubble Space Telescope. But after spending countless hours looking out at the galaxy, a young Fouts realized he wanted to practice astronomy in space as an astronaut.
“I knew in order to be an astronaut I had to have good grades. So I really pushed hard on my high-school grades and I applied to the Air Force Academy but got rejected because of a heart murmur,” Fouts said. “I realized being an astronaut is out the program but I can still do astronomy from the ground. I thought I’ll just continue to get a good education and, you never know, maybe they’ll come up with a waiver in the astronaut program for heart murmurs.”
Prior to high-school graduation, Fouts chased down Julius Sumner Miller, a heralded physicist who was known as “Professor Wonderful” due to his role on the “Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s.
“I went over to see him at El Camino College and said, ‘I would like to come here to get my first two years of college here at El Camino because I hear the classes are small and you get more one-on-one time with the professor, and I would like you as my mentor,’” Fouts said, recalling the two were walking across the campus of El Camino to go get the professor’s mail. “He said, ‘If you can keep up with me, then I’ll be your mentor.”
Despite Miller being 65-years-old at the time, Fouts had a hard time maintaining his pace. But they would hit it off, according to Fouts, who said he transferred to San Diego State University after his community college years.
After completing a project relating to quasars, which are among the most distant objects known to man, Fouts found himself in possession of a bachelor’s degree before his Master’s thesis advisor offered him a 10-month job at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
“I was pretty burnt out because of all work the work it took to get through school, so I thought it would be good to take time off — and, maybe, it would give me more incentive to come back and get a master’s degree,” Fouts said, recalling the 10 months of atmospheric research he completed while in Washington D.C. “There was a lot of stuff that could be used in a master’s thesis for me so I researched it and brought the material back to San Diego State University, and I ended up publishing a paper called Baseline Atmosphere Extension and got my Master’s thesis.”
Instead of heading to obtain his doctorate, Fouts was eager to get to work in his field.
“I landed the job as the director of the Goldendale Observatory in the state of Washington. And I didn’t realize at the time that they didn’t have a lot of funding. But I get the directorship and see that they’re working with state parks and we’re getting funds, but it’s way out in the boonies so it was very difficult to make this observatory profit-making,” Fouts said. “So, I would go into different science centers and advocate on our behalf to convince clubs to rent this telescope we had for use.”
In the process, Fouts said, “I got involved with Governor Dixy Lee Ray. We started talking about how she could buy the observatory from the city of Goldendale and make it the first State Park Observatory,” which she eventually agreed to do.
“They wanted me to be the park ranger of that facility,” Fouts said, but he didn’t want to be a ranger. After all, he was still holding out hope there would one day be a waiver for heart murmurs. “So, I decided to look for something else and it was like a miracle.”
Astronomer Allan Sandage was looking for somebody to do research on the hundred-inch telescope on Mount Wilson on the Milky Way galaxy. “And so, I interviewed with him, he hired me, and we studied for four years,” Foust said. “The project was called the Halo Mapping Project of the Milky Way Galaxy, and we started publishing four papers on the galaxy. One of them helped determine the mass of the galaxy and how it evolved from a gas cloud into a galaxy.”
Much more has been discovered today, but when the project was shut down due to light pollution and Sanchez approached Fouts to tell him he’d be out of the job, tears began to flow.
“That means my job is done?” Fouts asked. “And (Sanchez) said, ‘No. Would you like to work at Space Telescope?’ So, I become the first console operator at the Space Telescope Science Institute,” which is best known for the Hubble Space Telescope.
“We were in charge of upgrading the telescope but, remember, it’s not even in space yet when I was hired. It was still being built in Pasadena while I’m in Baltimore,” Fouts said. “So, we’re testing the software that TRW made for the Space Telescope and operating Space Telescope from Baltimore to show that the software will work when it launches. So, I wasn’t really operating Space Telescope when it was in space. But that’s what being the first operator of the Hubble Space Telescope entailed.”
In July of 1988, when he discovered his mother was dying of cancer, Fouts said another miracle happened. “I decided to leave and come out here. And when I got here, I interviewed for a job at Santa Monica College and I landed the job.”
In the decades since, Fouts has taught hundreds of students and even created the SMC Astronomy Club, which he advised up until December 2016. Some of Fouts’ pupils have been famous actors who have gone on to shoutout the professor in tabloid interviews, and others are looking to make a name for themselves in the field of astronomy as well.
“I still get letters from students saying they appreciated it and loved the star observing program weekends,” Fouts said, sharing he was forced to retire after a cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago. But the popular professor believes he’s cancer-free now and has found himself enjoying the thrills of online teaching since 2018.
Recently, fellow SMC professor Simon Balm asked Fouts to take a look at a website, he said. “And I look at this link, and I see an orbit of an object flying around the sun and this thing is called ‘6288 Fouts.’”
“I go, ‘WHAT THE HECK? Simon, do I have an asteroid named after me?” Fouts said, laughing as he recalled the surprise. “He said when I retired, he submitted my name to the International Astronomical Union, who’s responsible for giving names to asteroids, and they vetted my work. I guess it takes a couple of years to get approved, but they named one after me to honor all of my work in my career.”
Fouts said it feels great knowing there’s something out there that’s gonna have his name on it long after he’s here on Earth. But the professor hopes the work he has done in the classroom is what he’ll be remembered for.
“I think that the best time of my entire career was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory working on the Milky Way galaxy,” Fouts added. “However, almost equivalent to that is just being able to work with students that want to learn about astronomy and show an eagerness to learn about it. Like I said, there is nothing comparable to seeing a student’s eyes open up when they learn something new. That’s why I really love teaching and these students. It gives me the energy to keep going… So I would say those two things have made my career what it is for me.”