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Karl Gordon Henize (1926–1993)

Published onSep 01, 1994
Karl Gordon Henize (1926–1993)

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives,

John Irwin Slide Collection

Karl Gordon Henize, an astronomer, astronaut and then space scientist with NASA,died on October 5, 1993, from high altitude sickness on the slopes of Mount Everest in the course of an effort to climb that peak. In accord with his previously expressed wishes, he was buried on the mountain. Karl was born October 17, 1926, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended primary and secondary schools in Plainville and Mariemont, Ohio. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics in 1947, and a Master of Arts degree in astronomy in 1948 from the University of Virginia. In 1954, he earned his PhD in astronomy from the University of Michigan. During his stay at Michigan, he attended the Michigan Symposium in June of 1950 when Baade discussed using O+B stars and HII regions to discover the spiral arms of our galaxy. As part of his graduate work, he was an observer for the University of Michigan Lamont-Hussey Observatory at Bloemfontein, Union of South Africa. There he began his life long involvement with surveys and emission line objects—conducting an objective-prism survey of the southern sky for stars and nebulae showing hydrogen emission lines. He compiled a catalog of over 2000 Planetary Nebulae now listed as He objects. In 1954, he became a Carnegie postdoctoral fellow at Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California and continued his spectroscopic and photometric studies of emission line stars and nebulae.

From 1956 to 1959, he served as a senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in charge of the development and operation of their world-wide network of satellite tracking stations using Baker-Nuon cameras which were designed especially for tracking the new artificial Earth satellites. In 1959, Dr. Henize was appointed associate professor in Northwestern University's Department of Astronomy, and then full professor in 1964. In addition to teaching, he continued to study planetary nebulae, peculiar emission-line stars and T-associations. During 1961 and 1962, he took his observing south again as a guest observer at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, Australia. In 1967 Karl left the academic world and moved to Houston, Texas to join the astronaut program as a member of the second group of scientist-astronauts. From 1970 until his death, Dr. Henize served as adjunct professor of astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Karl was an early and major player in astronomical research utilizing instruments flown as part of the human space flight program. He was the principal investigator of experiment S-013, which obtained ultraviolet stellar spectra using a 70mm Mauer camera with an objective prism and an objective grating during the Gemini X, XI and XII flights. In later years when Karl was a member of the Astronaut Office and serving as a member of the support crew for Apollo XV with Dick Gordon, the two of them used to laugh about Karl and his science cohorts drilling holes in the back of the camera at the Pad the night before the launch of Gemini XI, on which Dick was Commander. The unauthorized drilling was discovered and Karl and his team were hauled out of bed and read the riot act after midnight but the camera flew anyway and the pressure problems noted during Gemini X were solved. Karl also became principal investigator of experiment S-019, in which a 6-inch aperture objective prism instrument was used on Skylab to obtain ultraviolet spectra of hundreds of stars.

When Karl was selected as an astronaut in 1967, his class nicknamed themselves the "XS-ll" because on arrival it became obvious that they would not be flying anytime soon. In fact Karl had the third longest wait ever for a flight—18 years. In the intervening years, there were other things to be done including becoming qualified as a jet pilot (at the age of 42), logging over 1900 hours of flying time, serving as support crew member on Apollo XV, continuing as principal investigator of S-019 and continuing his Astronomy research.

When Karl's turn came to fly, it was on STS 51-F, or Spacelab-2, which carried a collection of solar telescopes. Getting to orbit proved more exciting than most observing trips, including those to orbit. On the first launch attempt, July 12, 1985, the Shuttle Main Engines shut down just before lift off because of a faulty sensor. Two weeks later on July 29, 1985, the Orbiter, Challenger, launched successfully but five minutes into the flight another faulty sensor commanded one Shuttle Main Engine to shutdown. As a result the crew performed an "Abort to Orbit". This was the first and, so far, only time an abort of any sort has been necessary after a Shuttle launch. After 8 days of solar observing on-orbit Karl landed, this time uneventfully, at Edwards Air Force Base on August 6, 1985.

Dr. Henize left the Astronaut Office in April 1986 to become Senior Scientist in the Space Science Branch at the Johnson Space Center. There he did pioneering research in optical measurements of orbital debris, returning to his wide field survey roots and finding himself at a number of remote observing sites. One of his most significant discoveries was that the amount of orbital debris at sizes in the range of 10 to 100 centimeters in diameter is substantially larger than was expected. His work had an important impact on theoretical models of the orbital debris environment. At the time of his death, he had embarked on an ambitious observing program to detect orbital debris in geosynchronous orbit at altitudes near 36,000 kilometers.

During his career, Karl produced more that 75 papers on astronomical subjects. He received many honors and awards, including the Robert Gordon Memorial Award in 1968 and the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1974.

In the city of Nassau Bay where they lived across the street from the Johnson Space Center, Karl and his wife, Caroline, kept what in many ways resembled a faculty house, hosting innumerable open houses for a large and continuing stream of visiting scientists and space engineers. Karl was always interested in children and young people, often speaking at schools and corresponding with young people interested in space. The Karl Henize Memorial Undergraduate Scholarship has been established at the Department of Astronomy of the University of Texas at Austin for the purpose of aiding promising young astronomy scholars.

Karl is survived by his wife, Caroline, and their four children, Kurt, Marcia, Skye, and Vance; and a brother, Wilson Henize.

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