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Jurgen H. Rahe (1939–1997)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Jurgen H. Rahe (1939–1997)

Dr. Jurgen H. Rahe, Director for Solar System Exploration in NASA's Office of Space Science, was killed in an act of staggering randomness on 18 June 1997 when a 5-foot diameter oak tree fell during a storm, crushing his car. Jurgen is remembered as a respected, effective, and well-liked scientist and administrator, but above all as a gracious and gentle man. He is mourned by his wife, Hazel, daughter Isabell, two brothers in Germany, other family members, and countless colleagues and friends.

Rahe's career began in Germany, where he was born (30 June 1939) and educated, receiving a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Hamburg in 1966 and a Dr. Habil from the Technical University of Berlin in 1971. He taught at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, where he was both Professor and Director of the Astronomical Institute, for 12 years, beginning in 1971. He also served as director of the Remeis Observatory in Bamberg. Jurgen came to the United States in 1985 to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and teach planetary astronomy at Caltech. He moved to NASA Headquarters in 1989 (shortly after joining AAS) as Discipline Scientist for the Planetary Astronomy Program, and advanced to direct the Solar System Exploration Division. At the time of his death, Rahe was responsible for the overall management, budget, and strategic planning for NASA's solar system exploration program. He was also deeply involved in forging international partnerships to advance solar system exploration.

His scientific research, begun in Germany and continued in the USA, included studies of cataclysmic variables, novae, and interacting binaries, but he became best known as a comet researcher. He continued advancing comet research as Co-Leader of the International Halley Watch and Co-Investigator on the European Space Agency's Giotto mission to Comet Halley. He also served as Program Scientist for the Clementine, Rosetta, and Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous missions, and as Associate Program Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. His award include NASA's Outstanding Leadership Medal and a posthumous Distinguished Service Medal. Asteroid 1982 VT was named in his honor.

Jurgen served his community in other ways as well. He was co-editor of the journal Astrophysics and Space Science and a member of the editorial boards of II Nuovo Cimento and Earth, Moon, and Planets. He was president of the International Astronomical Union Commission 15 (Comets) and a member of three others, including "Astronomy from Space and Close Binary Systems." He edited more than a dozen books and conference proceedings. On a more personal side, Jurgen was vice president of his local Rotary Club, past president of the American Goethe Society, and a past member of the board of directors of the German School near his home. He was involved in the Beethoven Society and in Operation SMILE, a program for surgical repair of facial deformities in children from developing countries.

Jurgen was so warm, considerate, and kind that working closely with him led more often than not to friendship. He was constantly putting the needs of others ahead of his own, always alert to how he could make the lives of others a little easier or more pleasant. It didn't matter whether you were a colleague, a student, intern, boss, or a co-worker's grandchild, Jurgen was gracious in his attention and generous in spirit. His death has had a profound impact on many who knew him. We have been reminded of how important it is to be, above all, a good person, and how much we treasure those who are. Jurgen was one of those people, and we miss him deeply.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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