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Astronomy and space pioneers lost in 2016

Posted January 1
Updated January 2

Astronomy and space pioneers lost in 2016 (Credit, NASA, Peter Ellenby, Raytheon, Markus Possel, NSF)

It is not hard to find lists of celebrities in TV, film, music, sports and politics that we lost in 2016. But we also lost a number of notable people whose contributions to spaceflight and astronomy should not be forgotten.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell is best known as an Apollo 14 lunar module pilot. He walked over 2 miles on the lunar surface during the first Apollo mission devoted entirely to science. His contributions to bringing back the crew of Apollo 13 should not be overlooked. Using the Apollo training simulator, he helped work out how the lunar module could be used to control the damaged service module. Mitchell died on the eve of the 45th anniversary of his lunar landing.

Computer Engineer John Allenby and the GRiD Systems company he founded created the first successful laptop computer and the first laptop in space. The laptops were marketed initially to CEOs but their durability made them attractive to the military and NASA. A GRiD laptop used as a backup navigation system not only survived the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, but still worked.

While not strictly an aerospace achievement, electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson changed the way the world communicates when he invented a messaging system on ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. Tomlinson enabled users to send electronic mail between computers, separating the user ID from the machine name with the ‘@‘ symbol. When asked in a 2010 interview why he preferred the spelling “email” over “e-mail”, Tomlinson responded "I'm simply trying to conserve the world's supply of hyphens”

Physicist James Cronin shared a Nobel Prize for his description of the principle physics explaining why the universe survived the Big Bang. His research discovered a “fundamental asymmetry between matter and antimatter”, a shift from previous assumptions that the same laws of physics applied. The resulting Fitch-Cronin effect explains why matter and antimatter produced by the Big Bag did not wipe each other out.

Astronaut John Glenn served in the Marine Corps for 24 years before selection for NASA’s first group of astronauts. He would go on to be first American to orbit Earth. Realizing his iconic status and age made selection to fly aboard an Apollo mission too risky, he resigned from NASA in 1964 and announced his candidacy as senator from his home state of Ohio the following day. Glenn served in the Senate from 1974-1999. Near the end of his congressional term, Glenn flew aboard space shuttle mission STS-95 where medical experiments were conducted on the effects of spaceflight on the then 77-year-old.

Engineer Simon Ramo drove science and engineering of the U.S. Air Force’s ICBM program. He’s regarded as the architect of the Thor, Atlas, and Titan rockets. The Atlas was selected as the launch vehicle for NASA’s project Mercury, including Glenn’s first orbits around the Earth. Today, modern variants of the Atlas rocket continue to launch Earth-observing satellites and robotic missions exploring the solar system.

Astrophysicist Vera Rubin will be remembered for confirming the existence of dark matter. Her close study, along with colleague Kent Ford of how stars orbit the center of galaxies led to the discovery that something other than visible mass was contributing to star motion. Her work led to the current understanding that what we think of as normal matter makes up less than 5% of the universe. Roughly 68% is dark energy (confirmed by the Chandra X-Ray telescope in 2008) and the remainder is dark matter.


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