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James B. Breckinridge (1939–2022)

Breckinridge significantly advanced technology in optical systems for remote sensing from ground and space for over 40 years.

Published onJul 13, 2022
James B. Breckinridge (1939–2022)

Photo courtesy of James Breckinridge.

James Bernard Breckinridge, former manager of the technical section at JPL responsible for the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope and leader in studies of large-aperture, segmented space telescopes and sparse-aperture telescopes, died peacefully at the age of 83 in Pasadena, California, on June 12, 2022.

Jim was born the only child of Catherine Rose and Albert Breckinridge on May 27, 1939, in Cleveland, Ohio. By the age of 8, he knew he wanted to become an engineer, and by 12 he had already narrowed his future career down to optical engineering, astronomy, and astronomical instruments. With money from the sale of his Lionel train set and earnings from his paper route, he bought a telescope when he was 14. By the end of high school, he had constructed his own 3” refractor and recorded over 4,000 observations of variable stars for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

Breckinridge as a teenager in Cleveland with his refractor telescope. Photo courtesy James Breckinridge.

He earned his B.Sc. in physics from Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University), Cleveland, Ohio, in 1961. He then worked as an apprentice at Lick Observatory for three years with Gerry Kron, followed by a year in the Solar Division at Kitt Peak mapping the emission spectrum of the solar corona. After a stint at the Zenith Radio Rauland Corporation in Chicago making photocathodes for imaging systems, he returned to the Solar Division to prepare a wavelength atlas of the solar spectrum, now the standard in the field.

Attracted by the excellence of the Optical Sciences Center founded by Aden Meinel at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Jim enrolled in graduate school and received both his M.Sc. (1970) and Ph.D. (1976) in optics there. At the same time, he remained a research assistant at Kitt Peak specializing in spectroscopy, physical optics, atmospheric optics, and astronomical research.

Immediately upon receiving his doctorate, Jim was hired by NASA/JPL of Caltech as senior scientist in the Space Science Division and then as instrument scientist responsible for the optical design and engineering of the ATMOS space flight system on board Spacelabs 1 and 3. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding manager of the JPL Optical Sciences and Applications Section. As such he oversaw 70–90 engineers who delivered imaging spectrometers, cameras, and interferometers for the Cassini, Galileo, and ATMOS missions. Jim managed the section responsible for the repair of the optical system on the Hubble Space Telescope; Aden Meinel and his wife Marjorie had been hired by JPL at Jim’s request and served on one of the optics repair teams. From 1995 to 1999 he was Technical Program Manager at JPL and led studies of large-aperture, segmented space telescopes (prefiguring the James Webb Space Telescope) and sparse-aperture telescopes and also helped develop innovative imaging systems for the U.S. Department of Defense. In 1999 he accepted an assignment to the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., to manage the Advanced Technologies and Instruments program for the Astronomical Sciences Division. He returned to JPL in 2003 to become the chief technologist for NASA’s Origins program encompassing all ground-based, airborne, and space-based missions. In January 2010, he retired from JPL after 33 years of service. His most recent research focused on the effects of uncorrected polarization aberrations on exoplanet coronagraphy and precision polarimetry of exoplanet atmospheres.

Breckinridge taught the optical engineering class in the Caltech Departments of Aerospace (GALCIT) and Applied Physics from 1983 until 2018. He was most proud of his association with students and faculty and loved working with youth as a Scoutmaster of the Boy Scouts of America.

Almost until his death he held an academic appointment at Caltech as a visiting associate in optical system engineering and also at the College of Optical Sciences as adjunct professor. In his spare time, he was a consultant in space optics systems and technology.

In 2003 Jim was the recipient of the George W. Goddard Award of the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) and was elected its president in 1994. He served on the Board of Directors of both SPIE and the Optical Society of America.

Over the course of his career, he amassed over 120 publications in astronomy, physical optics, spectroscopy, and image science. He wrote a textbook, Basic Optics for the Astronomical Sciences (SPIE Press, 2012), for his optics classes and also With Stars in Their Eyes: The Extraordinary Lives and Enduring Genius of Aden and Marjorie Meinel (Oxford University Press, 2022) with Alec Pridgeon and Don Osborn. His geniality, promptness, work ethic, and many talents made it a sincere pleasure to work with him. He held four patents, one of which was for a tilt-compensated, 1-meter OPD Fourier transform spectrometer that flew on three shuttle missions to measure the abundance of trace molecules in the stratosphere.

Aden Meinel (left) with James Breckinridge in 2006. Photo courtesy James Breckinridge.

James C. Wyant, founding dean of the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, remembered Jim this way: “After he retired from JPL, he became a very active adjunct professor here at the University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences. He said he needed to be near students, and he wanted to continue developing instruments for performing scientific measurements. He also wanted to teach courses in optical system engineering. He was very good at obtaining research funds and not only did he help students in defining and performing their research, but he also helped them in funding their research.”

Jim is survived by his wife Ann, sons Douglass and John, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

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