Robert Breault

A trip to the library nearly 60 years ago changed Robert Breault's life, and the way people see outer space.

Breault, then a curious 13-year-old, picked up "Frontiers of Astronomy," about a subject that would grow into a passion and lead him to help improve one of the most important tools in space science: the Hubble Space Telescope.

At the University of Arizona, Breault's doctoral research on the properties and uses of light improved the Hubble's imaging system, making it capable of capturing the first clear images of far-off galaxies.

"People weren't doing this analysis," Breault said of his research at the time. "It improved the Hubble's performance by a factor of 100,000."

It also proved to be a steppingstone to a global career that melded science with business and turned Tucson into a center for optical research and development.

Now 70, Breault, the president of Breault Research Organization, has watched the industry grow both at home and overseas.

As one of the founding directors of the Arizona Optics Industry Association, Breault has been recognized in Tucson for building a center for research and manufacturing that Bloomberg Businessweek has called "Optics Valley."

He has mentored many light scientists eager to create companies that develop and sell different types of equipment, including lasers, telescopes, endoscopy machines and camera lenses, all of which use light, or optics, to enhance images.

Optical scientists travel to Tucson, "and we spend maybe two weeks working over their business plans," Breault said.

The industry association, of which Breault is chairman, leads an optics cluster where local start-ups and established companies in the industry work together to do business and promote economic development.

"Fifty-five companies showed up to our first AOIA meeting," Breault said. "Now, there are 309 companies."

Between 1996 and 2006, the state's optics industry went from generating $236 million and employing 2,300 people to generating $2.3 billion and employing 25,000, according to a 2008 report from the Office of Economic and Policy Analysis at the University of Arizona.

"He's been very proactive at organizing and being part of the Optics Valley," Carl Maes, associate dean at the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, said of Breault.

The Tucson cluster model has led to the creation of many clusters around the world. Breault has assisted in the start-up of about 50 clusters in 38 countries.

His presence abroad has helped brand Tucson as the place to go for good optics. Exports to Europe have been an important sector of the Tucson cluster's business, said Charles Haman, a former senior principal engineer at Raytheon and a board member of the optics association.

The widely recognized optical science program at the University of Arizona makes Tucson an ideal place for optics, Breault said.

Looking back, Breault said he set high expectations for himself at an early age.

"In eighth grade I set my goals," said Breault, who was raised in Naugatuck, Conn., and worked in construction with his father while growing up. "I said I was going to get a B.S. in mathematics. Then, after I graduated, I said I was going to become a fighter pilot, and after that I said I was going to go to the University of Arizona and get a Ph.D. in space research. I wanted to become a pilot astronaut or scientist astronaut."

His parents, however, couldn't afford to educate all four of their children, and Breault was not the only one who had big aspirations.

"My older sister wanted to go to college," he remembered while looking at one of the diaries he wrote at age 15. "My dad said to me, 'We only have money to send one, and if she goes, you're out of luck.' "

Breault told his father to send her, even if it jeopardized his own chances.

But his academic achievement earned him a full scholarship to Yale, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics.

Though he never became an astronaut, he did become an Air Force fighter pilot and went on to pursue space science.

In 1969, when Breault arrived in Tucson, the astronomy program at the University of Arizona had closed registrations. So he chose the College of Optical Science.

"I said, 'You know, I bet you I could make more money if I could design telescopes,' " Breault said.

And he did.

Two weeks after graduation, and with $200 in his pocket, Breault founded his own company.

"It was a one-person company," said Breault, who now employs 38 people. "We were a small business. I washed the toilet bowls, the kids vacuumed the rugs, and we painted the place."

Now, Breault Research takes in $5.5 million in annual revenue.

Establishing clusters around the world and working to develop the optics industry in Tucson is Breault's passion, but it's certainly not his only one.

"When you get married and have kids, you make the commitment to your family," he said. "It should be sacrosanct, too."

On weekends and in the summer, Breault changes gears from businessman to family man, or "Pops," as his grandchildren call him.

"Every Saturday morning, I take my grandchildren to Dunkin' Donuts," said Breault, who has three children and seven grandchildren. "This summer I took all my family to Greece and Cape Cod for five weeks. I don't think or worry about the business - I am 'Pops.' "

Breault also enjoys reading and writing. He has been documenting his life since he was a young boy and has written a multi-volume memoir.

"I am not writing for my grandchildren. I am writing for their children and their grandchildren," Breault said. "It's the only immortality that you can have."

Breault, a "Star Wars" buff, is currently reading "Star Wars: Shadow Games." He has read 135 out of the 137 "Star Wars" books, he said. In his free time, he builds wood furniture and goes to plays with his wife, Judi.

Breault says he finds a refuge from stress in his 2-acre backyard - an oasis of tall pine and eucalyptus trees that he relies on to recharge, he says, because "I plan to retire two days after I die."

This story was produced as part of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, held Jan. 2-15 at the University of Arizona School of Journalism in collaboration with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Twenty-three students from across the country were selected to work with journalism veterans from The New York Times and The Boston Globe; a staffer from the Arizona Daily Star also participated. You can read more of the students' work at