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Raymond H. Wilson, Jr. (1911–1989)

Trained as an astronomer, Raymond H. Wilson, Jr., applied astronomical research methodologies to drive the innovations to move humankind into space. His career spanned over 50 years, from double-star observations to supervising applied mathematics research for NASA.

Published onOct 15, 2020
Raymond H. Wilson, Jr. (1911–1989)

Raymond H. Wilson, Jr., in the dome of the 24-inch refractor of Sproul Observatory, Swarthmore College, dated November 27, 1928.

Raymond H. Wilson, Jr., died on Thursday the 21st of December, 1989.

Trained as an astronomer, Raymond H. Wilson, Jr., applied astronomical research methodologies to drive the innovations to move humankind into space. His career spanned over 50 years, from double-star observations using refractor telescopes, to calculating orbits for the one of the first US satellites, Vanguard, to receiving a patent for a method to control artificial space objects, to supervising applied mathematics research for NASA. In the twilight of his career he returned to the simple pleasures of astronomical observations and research. Throughout he was an energetic and enthusiastic contributor to the field of astronomy. He joined the American Astronomical Society in 1934.

As a young astronomer Wilson conducted large-scale photography of binary stars for motions and parallaxes, obtained micrometric measurements by visual methods and developed an interferential method for such measurements. Among other orbits he computed was that of a newly discovered satellite Jupiter X.

Wilson became fascinated by physics and astronomy at an early age. His paternal German-American grandmother was enthralled by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, probably as a result of the international attention to its confirmation by Sir Arthur Eddington during the solar eclipse of 1919. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and the young boy was captivated. He decided to become an astronomer. He wrote of his passion, and here we rely extensively on his unpublished autobiographical memoir.

He was born February 14, 1911, in Gap, Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County, to Agnes Wright from Philadelphia and Raymond Wilson, Sr., from near Danville in central Pennsylvania. Wilson Senior was a Presbyterian minister. His work took him from Gap to Southport, Connecticut, where the family lived until young Raymond was about 10 years old. It was in Southport that he “developed the soul of a naturalist, although the extension of this interest to outer space came only later.” He became “especially interested in wood and woodworking, and in trees” and “heard with interest that Yale University at New Haven had a School of Forestry.” He dreamed of possibly attending it when he reached college age. He was educated in the Three R’s by his mother from the age of 3 and only entered public school in third grade at the age of 7 ½. After an interlude of half a year at the Wilson homestead in “Frosty Valley” where young Raymond attended a one room school and was exposed to the curricula of higher grades, his mother petitioned for him to pass from 5th grade, skip 6th grade and enter 7th grade in their new abode in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, fifteen miles north of Harrisburg.

“The most important personal development at Duncannon,” he wrote, “was intense intellectual interest in astronomy and physics, first started by reading [his] father’s college textbooks in the subjects. During the 2 or 3 years before leaving for college [he] read almost all the books in astronomy available in the Harrisburg and Danville libraries.” Most influential were Camille Flammarion’s Popular Astronomy and Eddington’s Space, Time and Gravitation. In late 1924 he bought a 2⅛ inch refracting telescope from Sears for $25, and started observing celestial objects and recording a diary of such. This mental outlook on the universe, with continued development, remained with him indefinitely. As he did throughout his life, Wilson also enjoyed a diverse set of interests, in the arts, literature, and especially in sports. For the last two years of high school he attended the Harrisburg Academy, graduating when he was 16. His special interest in astronomy led him to apply successfully for a four year “open scholarship” to Swarthmore College, where he matriculated in September of 1927.

At Swarthmore, the Professor of Astronomy, John A. Miller (1859–1946), gave him a good start in that subject by appointing him a paid Laboratory Assistant for the descriptive astronomy course during his freshman year. He spent many evenings using a 6-inch refractor telescope to record data and draw celestial objects. Although his official academic major at Swarthmore was mathematics, he put much effort into gaining acquaintance with the arts of language, fine arts and music. In the summer of 1929 after his sophomore year, he got his “first really professional opportunity in astronomy” taking the place of an assistant professor to conduct observations seven half-nights per week.

Wilson continues: “Before the end of my senior year at Swarthmore (1931) I was able to assure immediate continuation of my studies in astronomy by my getting a research assistantship at Flower Observatory of the University of Pennsylvania. This success was due to my having cultivated the friendship of that observatory’s director, Dr. Charles P. Olivier. We collaborated on observations of meteors.” While at Swarthmore Wilson made many brightness estimates of variable stars for the American Association of Variable Stars, headquartered at Harvard College Observatory.

Wilson spent 4 years at Flower Observatory, where he earned a Master’s in Astronomy in 1933 and a Ph.D. in 1935. His Dissertation was entitled: “Measurement of double stars with an interferometer on the 18-inch refractor of the Flower Observatory.” This method of measuring very close double stars, both tricky and laborious, was used primarily by Wilson and by William S. Finsen (1905–1979) of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many of Wilson’s more than 200 publications can be found online via the Astrophysics Data Service.

On August 21, 1940, he married Irene G. L. Hansing, whom he had met during a visiting professorship at the University of Minnesota. She was a music teacher, artist, and poet. They enjoyed a full life together until her sudden death as the result of a stroke in Newport, Oregon, in 1983.

In 1954 Wilson joined Project Vanguard at the United States Naval Research Laboratory as a physicist, applying his knowledge of computation of orbits honed during his graduate work as well as other scientific skills to the nascent space effort. He rose to the position of Chief of Applied Mathematics in the Office of Advanced Research and Technology at NASA in which he supervised contracts at universities and government laboratories. During his tenure at NASA he published influential research on satellite mechanics. In 1965 he was granted a patent for a “Method and apparatus for magnetic steering” of space vehicles.

Before joining the space program, he held a position at the U. S. Naval Observatory and taught at Gettysburg College, Southern Methodist University, the University of Minnesota, the Naval Academy, Temple University, and the University of Louisville. These academic responsibilities were interspersed by research positions at observatories and institutions including Bartol Research Foundation (1936–1937), a fellowship at Mt. Wilson in the summer of 1938, and the Carnegie Institution (1938). Contracts with the Office of Naval Research (1949–1952) for which he was the principal investigator paved the path to his career with NASA. Even while working at NASA Headquarters he taught evening classes in astronomy and celestial mechanics at Georgetown University. After retiring from NASA, he was a professor of astronomy and applied mathematics and director of the observatory at the University of the Aegean, Turkey; an astronomer at Armagh Observatory, Northern Ireland; and a visiting astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory. Even as his career moved into the direction of space science, he avidly followed developments in astronomy, attending national and local meetings and contributing to the intellectual discourse of the professional societies to which he belonged. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society of Philadelphia, the Meteor Society, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the International Astronomical Union, the Mathematical Association of America, Sigma Xi and Sigma Pi Sigma.

He never lost his great enthusiasm for observing the heavenly bodies, and he was likewise excited to observe artificial satellites. Many were the nights he waited for the opportunity to spot a new one. He was always a strong advocate of science and its principles and ethics, the importance of sharing information for scientific advancement, and the moral imperative to inspire and guide young people. Always his approach to life was balanced by enjoyment of sports, the outdoors, and, yes, trees, while also appreciating the arts, literature and music. But his main passion was always astronomy and the stars.

Wilson died of complications after a fall that occurred in Fairfax, Virginia, on December 10, 1989. Surviving are his and his wife Irene’s daughter Kristin Marie, born in 1947, two grandsons and five great-grandchildren.

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