Riccardo Giacconi (1931-2018), an astrophysicist, was born in Genoa, Italy. He attended the University of Milan, receiving the PhD in 1954. From 1954 to 1956, he served as an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University, then became Research Associate (Fulbright Fellow) at Indiana University. From 1958 to 1959, he was a Research Associate in the Cosmic Ray Laboratory at Princeton University. In 1959 he took the post of Senior Scientist, vice president in charge of the Space Research and Systems Division, at American Science and Engineering (ASE), a private research corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He stayed at ASE, serving as Executive Vice President and a member of the Board of Directors, until 1973, when he left to become Associate Director of the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA) and Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University. He remained at the CFA until 1981 when he was appointed first Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University. In 1991 he was also appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Milan.
Much of Giacconi's pioneering work in x-ray astronomy took place during his tenure at ASE, and he was a major force in the development of the company. In 1962 Giacconi's group succeeded in detecting the first extrasolar x-ray source. In 1963 the same group obtained the first solar x-ray picture by use of an x-ray telescope, which had been conceived, advocated, designed, and fabricated by them. In that same year Giacconi proposed an x-ray astronomy satellite, Explorer. The proposal led to a program of construction in 1966-1970, followed by a successful launch in 1970. The satellite became known as Uhuru, and represented a major qualitative step in x-ray astronomy's observational capability. Following this early work on solar x-ray studies, a major program, initiated in 1968, culminated in the flight of the SO-54 x-ray telescope on the Apollo Telescope Mount's Skylab mission. In 1970 a program for construction of a 1.2 meter x-ray telescope for study of extrasolar sources was initiated. The program was modified in 1973, and finally led to the Einstein Observatory mission, successfully launched in 1978. Giacconi had responsibility for the scientific direction and administrative management of all these programs.
Giacconi went to the CFA as Director of the High Energy Astrophysics Division in 1973. He oversaw the conception, fabrication, and design of the Einstein Observatory, preparation of the software and hardware for data reduction for Einstein, and the establishment and implementation of the Guest Observer Program.
In 1981 Giacconi became Director of the new Space Telescope Science Institute, managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).When fully operational, the STSI was to be the center of operations and research for the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990. From 1987 to 1988, Giacconi served as a consultant to Montedison S.p.A., an Italian chemical conglomerate, with the title of Chairman of the Board, Instituto Donegani, the research arm of the parent corporation. This activity, which was an attempt to elevate Instituto Donegani to a world class center for chemistry, was soon abandoned.
In 1993, Giacconi left STSI to head the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is an intergovernmental European organization for astronomical research. ESO coordinates the activities of the La Silla and Paranal observatories in the Atacama Desert in Chile. One of the major scientific achievements of ESO under Giacconi's leadership was the installation of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory.
Giacconi left ESO in 1999 and is currently the President of Associated Universities, Inc., which manages the National Radio Astronomy Observatory under a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Giacconi is the author of over 300 articles on x-ray astronomy. He has been awarded numerous prizes for his scientific research, including the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of cosmic x-ray sources.