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John J. Hillman (1938–2006)

Published onDec 01, 2007
John J. Hillman (1938–2006)

John J. Hillman, a dedicated NASA civil servant, spectroscopist, astrophysicist, planetary scientist, and mentor, died on February 12, 2006 of ocular melanoma at his home in Columbia, Maryland. His professional and personal interests were wide-reaching and varied, and he devoted his career to the advancement of our understanding of the beauty and wonder in the world around us. His love of nature, art, and science made him a true Renaissance man.

John was born in Fort Jay, New York, on November 22, 1938, and was raised in Washington, D.C. He received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Physics from American University in 1967, 1970, and 1975, respectively. He began working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, then in its infancy, in 1969, juggling a full-time position as a Research Physicist, the completion of his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, and a young family. His background in molecular spectroscopy enabled him to apply his skills to numerous disciplines within NASA: infrared and radio astronomy; electronic, vibrational, and rotational structure of interstellar molecules; solar and stellar atmospheres; and planetary atmospheres. He published more than 70 journal papers in these disciplines. He was a frequent contributor to the Ohio State University International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy, and possessed a rare ability to bridge the gap between laboratory and remote sensing spectroscopy, bringing scientists from different disciplines together to understand our Universe.

The last fifteen years of John's career were devoted to the development of acousto-optic tunable filter (AOTF) cameras. He championed this technology as a low-cost, low-power alternative to traditional imaging cameras for in situ or remotely sensed planetary exploration. It was within this context that I got to know John, and eventually worked closely with him on the demonstration and application of this technology for planetary science using ground-based telescopes in New Mexico, California, and Hawaii.

John's interest in AOTF technology did not stop at planetary science: he cleverly applied this powerful tool to some of his other areas of interest, including art and history. Hyperspectral imaging, when applied to oil paintings, can reveal drawings underneath a "finished" work of art, and John was keen to learn more about his favorite artists by making spectral image cubes of their famous paintings. He also participated in an effort by the National Museum of American History to preserve the Star Spangled Banner flag that motivated Francis Scott Key to pen our national anthem. Perhaps John's most famous "observing run" was conducted at the Smithsonian, on the Mall in Washington, D.C., with an AOTF camera mounted on scaffolding in front of the flag. Spectral imaging revealed locations on the flag with signs of deterioration not visible to the unaided eye. In yet another example of John's amazing ability to bring together people from various disciplines, the team of people who worked on the flag project included planetary scientists, molecular spectroscopists, textile conservators, and agricultural scientists with expertise in the proteins of wool and cotton.

John was deeply committed to the scientific community, as demonstrated by his numerous service contributions. He spent two terms at NASA Headquarters, once in 1983-1985 as a Discipline Scientist for Planetary Astronomy, and once in 1999-2001 as a Discipline Scientist for the Planetary Astronomy and Planetary Atmospheres Programs in NASA's Solar System Exploration Division. He also served as a frequent reviewer for journals in planetary science, astrophysics, and molecular spectroscopy and served on numerous review panels for NASA and Goddard Space Flight Center.

Although John spent the vast majority of his career at a NASA center, he loved teaching and working with students. He was occasionally called upon to teach an astronomy course at the University of Maryland, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and for the last several years of his career he was a Co-Director of the College Park Scholars program at the University of Maryland. There he had an opportunity to share his love of science with college freshmen and provide them with unique educational experiences such as small seminars, individualized attention, and field trips. Even at Goddard, John maintained contact with numerous graduate students, many of whom he brought to Goddard as postdoctoral fellows funded through the National Research Council Resident Research Associateship Program. He was a natural mentor, providing leadership, advice, and friendship to the junior scientists who worked with him over the years.

One of the most exciting things about John was that he had numerous interests outside of astronomy. He enjoyed painting, and was a copyist at the National Gallery of Art. He was a skilled floral designer and won floral design contests in addition to owning a flower shop with one of his daughters. He was a gourmet chef, and could make a delicious meal out of the most basic of ingredients. He loved to ski, travel, garden, work on old cars, and read thriller novels. Most significantly, though, John was a deeply dedicated family man. He frequently shared stories about his adventures with his wife of 47 years, Patricia, his five children, his twelve grandchildren, and their extended family. With all of the professional accolades and successes he had received by the time he retired from Goddard, he viewed his family as his most significant accomplishment.

The astronomical community suffered a great loss in the passing of John Hillman. His commitment to professional service, his dedication to mentoring younger scientists, and his ability to bring together scientists from widely varying disciplines to work on a problem enabled him to make unique contributions to our field. Those of us who knew him miss his outgoing, friendly, inquisitive, and generous personality. John greeted each day with optimism, as a discovery and an adventure waiting to happen.


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