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Richard L. Walker, Jr. (1938–2005)

Published onDec 01, 2005
Richard L. Walker, Jr. (1938–2005)

Dick Walker, 67, died 30 March 2005 in Flagstaff, AZ, following a long illness. He was born on 9 March 1938 in Hampton, Iowa and grew up in Waterloo, Iowa.

As a child, Dick was fascinated with astronomy and built his own telescope. He saved his pennies and bought and read every book on the subject he could find. He also raised pigeons, naming four of them Hertzsprung, Hoyle, Gamow, and Kron.

In 1957, the year Sputnik was launched, Dick began his college studies at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. In 1959, he transferred to the State University of Iowa (subsequently renamed the University of Iowa) in Iowa City, where he earned a BA degree in astronomy and physics in 1963. He joined the staff of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, where he worked in the Time Service Division for a year before his assignment to the Astrometry and Astrophysics Division. Dick relocated to Flagstaff, AZ, in 1966 to continue his Naval Observatory service at the Flagstaff Station. His retirement in May 1999, ended a thirty-six-year career with USNO.

Dick was first and foremost an observational astronomer. From the mid 1960s through the late 1970s, much of Dick's time was devoted to the measurement of binary stars, observing with the 12-inch and 26-inch refractors in Washington and later the 40-inch and 61-inch reflectors in Flagstaff. He also made many trips to Lick Observatory to work with the 36-inch Clark Refractor there. During this time he consulted with Charles Worley, who was observing on the 26-inch, to make sure time was well-spent examining doubles that could not be observed in Washington. This period of observing overlapped with the early years of speckle interferometry, and Dick's observations, made with the largest telescope used for micrometry at the time, were very important for ascertaining the veracity of this new technique.

He was a studious and very careful observer of doubles and made over 8,000 measures, resulting in almost 3,000 mean positions. While measuring known systems for orbital analysis, he discovered 22 pairs (mostly additional components to these systems) and moving pairs, and his highlighting the rapid motion of these systems resulted in them being placed on many programs and led to the more definitive orbits of today.

As a staff member of the Flagstaff Station, Dick was, for over 30 years, one of the principal observers on the 61-inch parallax program. He also ventured into other areas of astronomy, including planetary systems. He is credited with discovering the moon of Saturn, Epimetheus, in December 1966, with the USNO Flagstaff Station 61-inch Kaj Strand Astrometric Reflector. He also obtained photographic plates to determine accurate positions of the outer planets for the Voyager 2 approaches to Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.

It is interesting to note that Dick's career in observational astronomy spanned three different eras of astronomical instrumentation and technique. He began his career doing eyeball astronomy, using a filar micrometer to measure double star separations. Photographic astronomy then became dominant and he took many thousands of plates. During the last ten years of his career, electronic cameras, primarily CCDs, replaced photographic plates. He readily adapted to the changing technologies.

A man of many interests, Dick was fascinated by the history of astronomy, especially archeoastronomy, as well as Egyptology. He taught himself the language of hieroglyphics. In 1977, having accumulated several weeks of vacation time, he set off on a trek to walk the Nile for 500 miles from Aswan to Cairo. One night, in the town Asyut along the Nile, he was brought into the police station. The local inhabitants found it hard to credit his story that he was simply on a walk and questioned him as a possible Israeli spy.

Following his retirement from the Naval Observatory, Dick consulted in a couple of construction projects. He designed the analemma and the skywalk star fields for the Koch Center for Science, Math, and Technology at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He also consulted with James Turrell, providing astronomical position information for the design of the Roden Crater Project outside of Flagstaff.

While he will be remembered for his significant scientific contributions to the field of astronomy, those who knew Dick, both scientists and non-scientists alike, will probably remember him best for his humility, his humanity, and his loyal and abiding friendship. He was a man with a terrific sense of humor and an infectious laugh. It was always an honor and pleasure to be in his company.

Richard L. Walker, Jr. is survived by his wife, Patricia, two daughters from his first marriage: Brenda Walker of Las Vegas, NV, and Pamela Hepburn of Holland, OH, as well as four children from Patricia's first marriage: Doug Browning of Lake Havasu City, AZ, Michael Browning of Kingman, AZ, Kim Bructo of Orient, OH, and Jennifer Brown of Lake Havasu City, AZ. He is also survived by ten grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his father Richard, mother Mary, and daughter, Paula Jean Elizabeth Stone.

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