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Jack William Slowey (1932–1997)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Jack William Slowey (1932–1997)

Jack Slowey, a staff member of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for more than 40 years and a participant in this country's immediate response to the launch of Sputnik I, died suddenly of an aneurysm on 25 January 1997. He is survived by his wife, Auralie, three sons, and a daughter.

Born in Wauwastosa, Wisconsin, on 19 March 1932, Slowey attended the University of. Wisconsin, where he earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in physics. He joined SAO in 1956 and remained on the staff the rest of his life, with short and sometimes concurrent stints as a lecturer at Harvard University and Boston College. He was a member of the American Geophysical Union as well as AAS.

Although at the time of his death Slowey was working as a software specialist in the observatory's Management Information Systems Department, he was trained as an atmospheric physicist and joined SAO just as the observatory was planning programs based on the anticipated launch of artificial satellites during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. When the Soviet Union stunned the West with the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, Slowey, as well as a handful of other staff assembled by new SAO director Fred Whipple, was pressed into service as instant "space scientists" to calculate a crude orbit that would allow tracking by SAO's international network of visual observers known as "Moonwatch."

Twenty-five years later, on the anniversary of that launch, Slowey recalled how he was eating dinner at his home when he received a frantic call to return to the observatory at once. He picked up his meal and drove into Cambridge with it on his lap, producing a puzzled reaction from a gas station attendant—who was then even more perplexed by Slowey's claim that he needed gas immediately because "the Russians have just launched a satellite." Because neither Harvard nor SAO yet had its own computer, the fledgling staff was using an IBM machine at MIT. Accompanied by a company executive, Slowey "broke into" a locked IBM office after hours on the night of 4 October to obtain some needed software. The two men set off the burglar alarm—and then spent precious time explaining to some incredulous Cambridge police that they were on a scientific mission of some urgency.

By early 1958, once SAO's worldwide network of Baker-Nunn cameras was into full operation and SAO had its own computing facility, Slowey was teamed with Luigi Jacchia to study the effects of atmospheric drag on the motion of Earth-orbiting satellites. The subsequent discovery that variations in atmospheric density were directly related to solar activity was considered one of the most significant early results of the Space Age.

Slowey continued his collaboration with Jacchia for another quarter century, producing a series of papers that formed the basis for a standard model of the Earth's atmosphere. Following Jacchia's retirement, Slowey applied his considerable mathematical and analytical skills to the equally daunting task of computerizing SAO's complex management and administrative process. His scientific papers are largely archived at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge.

Photo (available in PDF version) Jack Slowey receiving the Smithsonian's 40-year service award in 1996 (courtesy Laura Wulf).

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