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Stephen Alan Drake (1951-2023)

Drake conducted a broad range of research involving radio to x-ray observations and modeling of stellar and galactic sources.

Published onAug 17, 2023
Stephen Alan Drake (1951-2023)

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Stephen Alan Drake passed away on Thursday, May 8, 2023, after a short battle with glioblastoma multiforme. He was 72.

Drake was born in Birkenhead, England on February 3, 1951. His parents were Edgar Drake and Caroline (Thomas) Drake. He had two siblings, June Buckingham and Pauline Sherry. After growing up in Birkenhead in a large and loving family, he went to Edinburgh University (1969-1973) where he received his B.Sc. in Astrophysics. He then went to the United States for graduate work at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA; 1973 – 1980) where he earned his Ph.D. in Astronomy.

In 1976 as a graduate student, Drake co-authored “Solar Abundance of Iridium” with Lawrence H. Aller who had just stepped down as chair of the astronomy department (PNAS Vol 73, Issue 2, 1976, pp.269-270). In 1977 and 1978, he co-authored papers with Stephen A. Naftilan. In 1979, he published “Analysis of Balmer Line Profiles in Young Stars with Stellar Winds” (BAAS Vol. 10 p. 656) with his doctoral advisor Roger Keith Ulrich and Gillian Revill Knapp, who is a widely recognized mathematician and physicist as well as an astronomer at Princeton.

Drake completed his doctorate in 1980. His thesis was “The Emission Lines and Continuum from a Slab of Hydrogen at Moderate to High Electron Densities.”

From December 1981 to December 1985, Drake was a post-doctoral researcher at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), operated by the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards & Technology. While there, he co-authored 17 papers with Jeffrey L. Linsky who went on to the University of Colorado’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA), and a professorship at UC astronomy. Drake was the sole author for six publications on G, K, and M giant stars that proposed models for their spectral lines. Also while in Colorado, Drake first gathered and assessed data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Very Large Array, a facility he returned to several times through 2005.

He originally joined the teams at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 1985 through a position with the Solar Maximum Mission (SMM) project where he was assigned to the Ultraviolet Spectrometer and Polarimeter instrument after the SolarMax satellite was repaired and redeployed by STS-41-C Challenger. In January 1991, Drake became one of the permanent scientific staff of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC) where he worked until his passing.

Drake was the sole author for twenty papers on topics ranging from hot stars, late-type stars, to magnetic chemically peculiar stars. He had a lifelong passion for stellar coronae. Most of his ~150 other publications involved collaborations, usually with one, two, or three other researchers, encompassing high energy events and processes in stellar and galactic astrophysics, e.g., O stars, M and S stars, RS CVn and magnetic Bp stars, as well as the photospheres, chromospheres, coronae of individual stars and their resultant interstellar winds. His work frequently was based on X-ray data from ROSAT, ASCA and Chandra spacecraft, among others.

Drake took on special projects to maintain the GFSC database archives. His daily work included shepherding updates to “A Brief History of High-Energy (X-ray & Gamma-Ray) Astronomy”. He also devoted considerable attention to restoring and rebuilding the data warehouse of older high-energy datasets, bringing them into modern formats. That effort included adding new databases to the warehouse, continuous updates to the webpages, and serving as the delivery point for questions, praise (and blame) sent in to the HEASARC Feedback line. As a result, he was the designated HEASARC scientist for the RXTE, CGRO, and XMM-Newton projects. Always a collaborator, Drake served as a science team member for the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (ICER) mission and the Observatory Science working group for the enhanced X-ray Timing and Polarimetry (eXTP) mission .

Drake met his future wife, Janice, while working on his doctorate at UCLA. They were married in 1978 and started their family when he was working at GFSC, raising their children, Jaemie Drake and Nicholas Drake, in suburban Washington DC to enjoy theater, music, books, food, nature, and travel. Drake is survived by Janice, Jaemie, and Nick, and their spouses, Chay Halbert and Listelle Quintinio Drake, as well as Nick and Listelle's two daughters, Evelyn and Eleanor. Family memorials included donations to charities, planting of trees, and a champagne toast. Asked for their remembrances, his colleagues at the Goddard Space Flight Center frequently cited Drake’s sense of humor.

“Steve and I shared an office for more than 20 years at the Goddard Space Flight Center when we both worked for the HEASARC, the high-energy astrophysics science archive, so I did know him quite well. Steve was an extraordinary scientist with an encyclopedic knowledge of stellar astrophysics and stellar flares, from radio to X-rays. He had a marvelous scientific career and made important contributions to a wide range of space-based observatories, starting with the Solar Maximum Mission in the 1980’s and continuing through the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, an X-ray facility launched in 2017. Steve was a key member of the HEASARC from its beginning and helped shape the HEASARC into one of the premier astrophysical archives. He served as archive scientist for the RXTE and XMM-Newton X-ray observatories, two of the most heavily used X-ray data archives. On a personal level, Steve was also a great friend; he was widely known for his wry sense of humor and his great appreciation for the absurd.” – Michael Corcoran, HEASARC, Goddard Space Flight Center.

“It turns out that Steve's and my scientific interests didn't overlap all that much. What we did do is eat lunch together for about 20 years at GSFC. Twenty years of jokes, teasing, political and cultural observations, travel, family stories, and yes, discussing interesting things happening in science. My area of interest lies in the soft X-ray diffuse background so some of that teasing was along the lines of "pesky point sources" and "contaminating background". Steve was a good friend and an interesting guy, and we laughed a lot.” – Steve Snowden, HEASARC, Goddard Space Flight Center

See also:

Drake’s biography from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Drake’s citation from the International Astronomical Union

Family Remembrances from Legacy

Drake’s AstroGen entry

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