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Merton Edward Davies (1917–2001)

Published onJan 01, 2002
Merton Edward Davies (1917–2001)

Merton E. Davies was a great friend to all who knew him. The diversity of that large group of fortunate people reflected the wide range of his professional and personal interests.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota on 13 September 1917, Davies was the youngest of the three children of Albert Daniel and Lucille McCabe Davies. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Palo Alto, California, where Davies received an AB in mathematics from Stanford University in 1938. He taught mathematics for two years at the University of Nevada, but was then absorbed as a mathematics group leader in aviation development at Douglas Aircraft as that corporation geared up for World War II.

Mert, as he was known to everyone, joined the RAND Corporation in 1947 and remained on the RAND staff for the rest of his life. He began his career in military reconnaissance. In the early 1950’s, he was a key contributor to the development of the CORONA system, which became the world’s first reconnaissance satellite. The first pictures taken of Earth from orbit were reconnaissance photographs registered on a roll of film that was returned to Earth on 18 August 1960 in a CORONA capsule.

Mert was one of the ten founders of the National Reconnaissance Office, an agency of the Department of Defense. He received the George W. Goddard Award in 1966 for his “distinguished contributions to the development of photoreconnaissance.” He became a valued consultant to the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

This top-secret work for the military was a prologue to Mert’s highly productive career as a major player in the Golden Age of planetary exploration. He understood immediately that his pioneering work on space photography could be applied to his keen interest in the moon and planets. By 1958, just two years after the successful launch of the Soviet Sputnik, Mert had already written a report about methods for obtaining pictures of the moon from a spin-stabilized spacecraft. When the opportunities for deep space missions arrived, he was ready to use his expertise in photogrammetry to start the systematic mapping of the planets and their satellites. This led to a his participation in a long series of NASA missions, making him the only person on Earth who had made virtual visits to every planet in the solar system save Pluto, for which there were no missions in his lifetime.

Mert’s contributions to these missions were instrumental to their astounding successes. Before launch, he participated in the design of the camera systems and the development of imaging strategies. When the data came in, it was Mert who established the coordinate systems for all of the target objects. The maps we have of Mercury, Venus, Mars and the satellites of the outer planets are all based on his work in establishing the point of zero longitude or the prime meridian for each object. As Bruce Murray has commented, to do so for even one such object would be a “major career achievement by any scientist,” but to be credited for having done so for essentially every large solid object in the solar system except Earth and Pluto provides “an instructive lens through which to view Davies’ accomplishment.” (EOS, 82, 46(13 November 2001):551–552.) Recognizing that there was no scientific society overseeing this activity, Mert became the founding chairman of the IAU/IAG Working Group on Cartographic Coordinates and Rotational Elements of the Planets and Satellites in 1976. At about this same time, he became a member of the newly created task groups reporting to the IAU Working Group for Planetary and Satellite Nomenclature. In that capacity, he helped to name the new moons and the myriads of surface features revealed on planets and satellites by the missions in which he participated. He remained active in all of these groups until his death, leaving a legacy of maps and coordinate systems that are likely to endure forever.

In recognition of this work, he received the Talbert Abrams award of the American Society of Photogrammetry in 1974 and in 1999, he became a fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

Any listing of Mert’s accomplishments cannot do justice to the full measure of the man. He was exceptionally warm and generous, with a fine, friendly sense of humor. These characteristics were especially evident in his highly successful interactions with Soviet colleagues during the long, tense period of the Cold War, but were also of great benefit to those of us struggling with each other over the instrument parameters and scientific objectives on those marvelous planetary missions.

Mert liked to say that “the essence of exploration is finding answers for which there are no questions.” The openness to new perspectives that this remark reveals was indeed one of his great attributes. His career spanned the era in which our knowledge of the planets and their satellites changed from speculation about fuzzy telescopic images or simply moving points of light in the night sky to a deep appreciation of the nearby worlds in our planetary system. He gave us the maps that allow us now to explore these worlds and seek out their wonders. We only wish he could be with us as we follow the paths he provided.

In 1946, Mert married Margaret Louise Darling. Their marriage was blessed with three children, Deidra Louise Stauff, Albert Karl Davies and Merton Randel Davies, all of whom survive him with their mother. Davies passed away in Santa Monica, California on 17 April 2001 following complications from surgery.

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