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Today about 100 friends and colleagues joined virtually to celebrate and honor Dr. Gary Sanders, who officially retired at the start of 2021 after nearly 17 years of leading the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) as Project Manager. He had been responsible for managing the design and construction of the telescope since its inception in 2004.

An accomplished scientist and manager of scientific mega-projects, Dr. Sanders knew he wanted to become an experimental elementary-particle physicist at just eight years old. “I never wasn’t interested in science,” he said. “I still don’t understand what it is that makes me, or makes someone, a scientist. My mother once showed me, when I already had a doctor’s degree, a paragraph that I wrote in third grade, which said that I wanted to grow up and be an experimental elementary-particle physicist. That would have been in 1954.”

Dr. Sanders’ career path in scientific project management started early as the chairman of the Cyclotron Club at Stuyvesant High School, in Manhattan, in 1961, where he helped construct a particle accelerator. He went on to attend Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics. He then attended MIT and worked on an experiment at the German national lab DESY [Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron] under Dr. Samuel Ting, who would win the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics.

“Gary was my first student at MIT,” said Dr. Ting. “He was able to think creatively and act very quickly and accurately, which are important qualities for a physicist. We worked on very difficult experiments together and Gary managed to master all of them.”

After earning a Ph.D. from MIT in high-energy physics, Dr. Sanders became an assistant professor at Princeton University. He later joined the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where he served in several positions, including as principal investigator and program manager for High Energy Physics. He then became project manager and head of the GEM (Gamma, Electron, Muon) detector department for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) Laboratory, which was designed to be the largest particle accelerator ever constructed.

While at SSC, Dr. Sanders worked with Dr. Barry Barish, who is now a professor at Caltech. When asked to share his thoughts about Dr. Sanders, Dr. Barish said, “Gary has a dual personality that is almost unique in science. On one side, he is very much a scientist trained at the highest level as a physicist and on the other side he is more of an engineer. This breadth of abilities enables him to manage large, complicated projects like GEM for the SSC because he not only understands the science but also the subtleties required to pull it all together.” Unfortunately, the SSC project was canceled by Congress in 1993.

In 1994, Dr. Barish recruited Dr. Sanders to serve as the project manager and deputy director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), the most expensive scientific project ever funded by the National Science Foundation. He oversaw the construction of Initial LIGO, beginning in 1994, as well as the development and approval of the next phase of LIGO, called Advanced LIGO.

Advanced LIGO was dedicated in May 2015 and that September, for the first time in human history, it detected gravitational waves – ripples in spacetime created by the merging of two massive black holes some 1.3 billion light years away. This achievement earned Dr. Barish, Dr. Kip Thorne, and Dr. Rainer Weiss the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Says Dr. Weiss of Dr. Sanders, “The reason why I am so fond of Gary is that he was the guy who knew how to deal with problems that were urgent, but he was calm, thorough and thoughtful. You don’t meet that combination of person so often. He was exactly what the project needed at that time and he executed beautifully. Now, I want to give him a lot of credit for the fact that we made a big discovery with this, and he deserves it. He laid the groundwork for that discovery.”

In 2004, Dr. Sanders became the project manager of TMT, a new class of extremely large telescopes that will allow astronomers to see deeper into space and observe cosmic objects with unprecedented sensitivity. The non-profit collaboration is comprised of Caltech, the University of California, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India and Canada’s National Research Council.

Over the last 16 years, Dr. Sanders played an integral role in assembling a world-class team and steering the project from its early conceptual phases to a technically mature billion-dollar project. Despite uncertainties surrounding the telescope’s final location, he was instrumental in keeping the design and production of the telescope’s many parts, systems and instruments moving forward among the international partnership.

In February 2020, Dr. Sanders paved the way for future funding for TMT with an outstanding presentation to the National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 as well as the submission of a Planning and Design Proposal to the National Science Foundation in collaboration with our US-ELTP partners. It was the final of many incredible achievements celebrated during his career with TMT.

“Gary is an all-around experienced, smart scientist and engineer,” said TMT Executive Director Dr. Ed Stone. “He deeply understands what it means to manage a project, and not just from a technical standpoint. He understands human nature, legal issues, organizational challenges and you can tell his satisfaction comes from laying out a plan and achieving success on very challenging projects. Throughout his career, Gary has chosen to work on projects of highest importance scientifically, with the promise to transform our understanding of the universe.”

Added Sanders, “As I reflect on my retirement, I realize that my childhood experiences were harbingers of where I was headed. The most important thing is to become who you are. I’ve been able to do that in my career, working on transformative projects with incredible teams. That was what I wanted to do.”

Dr. Sanders’ leadership will be missed but he leaves as his legacy a strong foundation for future success. Deputy Project Manager Fengchuan Liu, who has worked closely with Gary and co-led the project for the last five years, will assume the Project Manager (acting) position while TMT searches for a permanent Project Manager.

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