George Carruthers, Whose Telescopes Explored House, Dies at 81

George Carruthers built his first kit telescope in 1949 when he was 10 years old and lived in rural Ohio. Fascinated by space, he devoured magazine articles about space travel.

If the unknown was to be explored, he wanted to be part of it.

Two decades later, as an astrophysicist and engineer – one of the few who were black at the time – he designed an advanced telescopic device that was used during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972 and 1972 produced ultraviolet photographs of the geocorona, the outermost atmosphere of the earth, as well as of stars, nebulae and galaxies.

“In March 1610 Galileo Galilei reported the first use of a telescope to observe mountains and Mary on the moon,” wrote Dr. Carruthers and Thornton Page, his collaborator on the project, in a NASA report in late 1972. In 1972, the Apollo 16 commander positioned a slightly more complex optical instrument of the moon on Earth and received several notable photos showing atmospheric rather than surface features. “

Dr. Carruthers, who designed more telescopes to fly aboard NASA’s spacecraft, died on December 26th in a Washington hospital. He was 81 years old.

His brother Gerald said the cause was heart failure.

Dr. Carruthers, a short, reticent man who often rode his bike to work, started out at the United States Naval Research Laboratory in 1964 and expressed his fascination with telescopes. He led a team that designed a telescope apparatus that amplified images from space by converting photons into electrons, which could then produce electron-sensitive film images.

The device integrated telescopic optics with a camera and a spectrograph that scatters the light from objects into the wavelengths of its components.

In 1970 one of his telescope creations, sent into space on an unmanned rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, proved the existence of molecular hydrogen between stars and galaxies. Until then, molecular hydrogen, which is vital to the formation of stars, was notoriously difficult to detect.

Until then, Dr. Carruthers on the Apollo Mission and led a team that built the lightweight, gold-plated Far Ultraviolet Camera / Spectrograph that astronauts John Young and Charles M. Duke Jr. would use in the Descartes highlands.

On each of their lunar walks during their 71 hours on the moon, Mr. Young and Mr. Duke turned on the telescope. “Once the astronauts put it on an object, they can move away and work, then come back and change the direction of the camera,” said space historian David H. DeVorkin, senior curator of the National Air and Space Museum, in a telephone interview.

The device was left behind when the astronauts departed. It’s probably still there.

“He was a great toolmaker, studying science,” said DeVorkin, who wrote a biography of Dr. Carruthers writes. “He didn’t ask new questions, but he and his science were very practical.”

In 1973, Dr. Carruthers of the American Astronomical Society awarded the Helen B. Warner Prize for Outstanding Astronomer of the Year Under 35. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Dr. Carruthers the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the country’s highest award for technology achievement.

When Dr. Carruthers was honored by NASA during Black History Month in 2016, said Charles F. Bolden Jr., Space Agency administrator, “He has helped us see our universe in new ways through his scientific work, and he has us helped as a nation, we see ourselves anew. “

George Richard Carruthers was born in Cincinnati on October 1, 1939. His father, also known as George, was an engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. His mother, Sophia (Singley) Carruthers, was a postal worker. The family moved northeast to Milford, a farming community, in the 1940s.

“When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my grandmother gave me a Buck Rogers comic book, and of course that was long before there was anything like a space program,” said Dr. Carruthers in an oral story interview with the American Institute of Physics in 1992. “Since it was science fiction, nobody took space travel seriously back then, back in the late 40s, early 50s.”

His father died when he was 12 years old, and his mother moved the family to Chicago, where George took telescope building courses and articles for inspiration at the Adler Planetarium on the future of space exploration in Collier’s magazine, written by experts like German-born rocket master Wernher von Braun, science journalist Willy Ley, and astronomer Fred Whipple.

Dr. Whipple’s suggestion that astronomical work from space might bring benefits confirmed George’s interest.

“Most of the astronomers in the planetarium,” said Dr. Carruthers, in an interview with Oral History, “thought it was nonsense, astronomy is done with ground-based telescopes, and you shouldn’t waste your time thinking about space.” ”

In October 1957, during his first semester at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite. He and other members of the school’s astronomy club watched Sputnik as he walked over the head. More importantly, Sputnik’s success Dr. Carruther’s desire for a career in space technology legitimized it.

After graduating from university in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, he went on to graduate school and received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and a doctorate in aerospace engineering.

In the first eight years of Dr. Carruthers in the naval laboratory flew his increasingly sophisticated telescopic devices on numerous unmanned rockets. But his Apollo 16 telescope was his most important; During that mission he was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“We could actually hear them talking on our instrument,” he told an interviewer for a space center oral history in 1999. Mr. Young, he recalled, “used a visor on the side of the camera to point it at the earth.” to set the reference for any other targets we wanted to use and he verified that he had seen the earth and it was in the center of his field of view. “

Dr. Carruther’s devices flew on various other missions. One of them observed Comet Kohoutek in 1973 from Skylab, the first space station in the United States; others flew various missiles, including one that unexpectedly caught a meteor that dissolved into Earth’s atmosphere; and one was on board the Spartan satellite released by Space Shuttle Discovery in 1995 in search of the material that would form new stars and planets.

Dr. Carruthers retired from the marine laboratory in 2002.

In addition to his brother Gerald, his wife Debra (Thomas) Carruthers and another brother Anthony survive.

In retirement, Dr. Carruther’s Earth and Space Sciences at Howard University, where he has been a reviewer for the school’s NASA-funded Center for the Study of Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Atmospheres since the 1990s.

At night, Dr. Carruthers took students to the school’s Locke Hall Observatory to view stars and planets from a telescope. He also helped students build telescopes in a summer program at the university.

“He had a very low-key personality and you’d have to pull him out to get him to talk,” said Prabhakar Misra, professor of physics at Howard, over the phone. “But when he interacted with students – which was his passion – he became a different person.”

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