Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Billy Murray McCormac (1920–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Billy Murray McCormac (1920–1999)

Dr. Billy McCormac died on September 13, 1999 at age 79. His many friends and colleagues will remember him for the legendary International Institutes on Space Plasma Physics, which he organized and directed between 1965 and 1975. He will also be remembered as the director of the Lockheed Solar Physics and Astrophysics group in the 1970s.

Billy was born on September 8, 1920 and raised in Zanesville, Ohio and graduated from Ohio State University in 1943. He joined the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant and served in Europe and Korea. As a career officer, he was sent to graduate school at the University of Virginia, where he earned a PhD in nuclear physics in 1957. He then held various scientific positions in the Army until his retirement in 1963 as a Lieutenant Colonel. His last military position was chief of Electromagnetics at the Defense Atomic Support Agency, where he was responsible for experiments measuring the effects of high altitude nuclear weapon explosions in the Pacific. These detonations in 1962 and their impact on the magnetosphere were his introduction to space physics, the field he would follow the rest of his life. Billy went from the Army to the illinois Institute of Technology Research, where he held various technical management positions and began organizing the Advanced Study Institutes.

This era was one of rapid but confused growth in space research. McCormac recognized the need for a special kind of symposium, structured as a series of comprehensive invited talks, followed by long periods of open discussion. These International Advanced Study Institutes were typically held in somewhat isolated locations in Europe or North America. The participants included most of the prominent space and upper atmosphere scientists of the day, and a large contingent of postdoctoral students.

These yearly conferences had an important impact on space research because they helped form an international community of scientists with common interests, introduced new researchers to space physics, and led to collaborations, some of which continue to this day. The collected papers from each meeting were edited by McCormac and published promptly in book form. The volumes were up-to-date reports of space science when they appeared and are still valuable references works. A generation of young scientists have used them as supplementary reading in their education.

In 1968, Billy joined the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Palo Alto, California. He managed research groups in radiation and optical physics and in solar physics and astrophysics. At that time, the Lockheed Solar Observatory consisted of several small telescopes located in southern California, and the group specialized in time lapse movies of the sun taken through narrow-band spectral filters. It was decided to continue this work with spaceborne instruments to improve spatial resolution. Billy directed the transfer of the Observatory to Palo Alto, where space engineering capabilities would be available. Shortly after this move, the group, including Drs. Alan Title, Loren Acton, and others, designed, built, and flew a solar telescope, containing a tuneable narrow band filter, on Spacelab 2. This mission was followed by other optical and X-ray instruments for solar research, and its descendants are in orbit today. Thus, one of Billy's legacies is the Solar Physics Center at Lockheed Martin, which pioneered, and is still conducting, measurements of the sun at high spatial and spectral resolution.

In addition to his solar work, McCormac was largely responsible for applying solid Fabry-Perot filters to studies of the upper atmosphere. This effort culminated in an infrared spectrometer, which was built at Lockheed by Aidan Roche and colleagues and flown on NASA's Upper Atmospllere Research Satellite. He also for some years edited the Journal of Water, Air, and Soil Pollution and a series of geophysics and astrophysics monographs.

Billy's unique style of brisk decision-making derived from his military experience and from his impatience with inefficiency. Refreshingly straightforward and direct, his executive policy followed a principal of least fuss and delay. His correspondence was terse, but unmistakably clear. His remarkable ability to organize, his prompt attention to detail, and his boundless energy and drive were hallmarks of all his activities.

McCormac retired from Lockheed in 1992 and lived in Mountain View, California until his death. In addition to the AAS, he was a member of the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Marine Technology Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Photo courtesy of Martin Walt

No comments here