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Richard Tousey (1908–1997)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Richard Tousey (1908–1997)

Richard Tousey, astrophysicist and long time employee of Naval Research Laboratory, died of pneumonia in Prince Georges Hospital Center on 15 April 1997. He had spent most of his 37 years at NRL as head of the Rocket Spectroscopy Branch of the Optics Division, later the Space Science Division, before retiring in 1978. Tousey was born in Somerville, Massachusetts on 18 May 1908 and graduated from Tufts in 1928. He received MA (1929) and PhD (1933) degrees in physics from Harvard and an Sc.D (honoris causa) from Tufts in 1961.

Tousey's thesis was "An Apparatus for the Measurement of Reflecting Powers with Application to Fluorite at 1216 A," and was carried out under Theodore Lyman (of the series). He engaged in both research and teaching at Harvard (1933-36) and Tufts (1936-41) before coming to NRL in 1941 at the invitation of E.O. Hulburt, whom he had met while sailing in Bucks Harbor, Maine. He began a series of researches there on vision through binoculars and telescopes, on night vision, on camouflage, and on infrared viewers that could be used for surveillance in total darkness. All were of battlefield importance at the time.

After the war, Tousey found himself at the very threshold of the space age, which arrived in the form of captured German V-2 rockets. The Armed Services had built a test facility for V-2's at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and made some of the rockets available for scientific purposes, including the first spectra of solar ultraviolet radiation. Thus Tousey followed in Lyman's footsteps, discovering the same hydrogen emission line series in sunlight that Lyman had found in the laboratory.

His solar studies continued in more modest American-made rockets, after the supply of huge V-2 vehicles had been used up. These included measurements of solar UV intensity and studies of its role in producing the earth's ionosphere, identification of unknown UV lines, the first direct measurements of the height of the earth's ozone layer, and a confirmation of the presence and extent of the geocorona.

In support of the solar ultraviolet work, Tousey and his colleagues conducted a number of laboratory studies of UV optical materials and reflecting coatings. They also launched rockets at night to make the first direct measurements of the altitude and intensity of the nightglow layer (faint light derived from stored solar energy in the gases of the upper atmosphere).

Rocket measurements were only the beginning, and Skylab, launched in 1973, presented an even better opportunity, since it was manned, devoted entirely to science, and could be loaded with laboratory-sized instruments. Tousey's group had two instruments aboard, one that recorded the spectrum with very high wavelength resolution and one that recorded very high spatial resolution images of the solar surface and its gaseous envelope. Exposure times were no longer a problem, and the astronauts made more than 7000 exposures on UV film from those two instruments and a TV monitor. Tousey's group were also the first to fly coronagraphs on rockets and in orbiting spacecraft, recording images of solar flares and ejecta that can cause geomagnetic storms and other terrestrial effects when they happen to hit us. A less successful effort was one to observe a solar eclipse from an airplane over Peru. The plane lost two of its four engines over the Andes but managed to return safely to Lima.

Tousey was a vice president of the AAS 1964-66 and the Russell Lecturer in 1966 (the first from the space physics community). He also received the Hale Prize of the Solar Physics Division in 1990. Tousey, Lyman, Hale, and Hulbert were all at various times recipients of the Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America. Tousey's other awards and honors included membership in the National Academy of Sciences and its Henry Draper Medal, the Eddington Medal and George Darwin Lectureship of the Royal Astronomical Society, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His non-scientific interests included the collecting of old silverware, ornithology, and music, especially of the baroque, an interest he shared with his late wife, Ruth Lowe Tousey, a violist and violinist who died in 1994, and his daughter, flautist Joanna Tousey. Other survivors include three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Tousey's scientific papers and correspondence were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum Archives Diivision in 1996 and are stored at the Paul Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland. An appreciation of his work and a complete bibliography through 1960 appeared in the Journal of the Optical Society of America 51, 379 (1961) in connection with his receipt of the Ives Medal. An extended obituary should also appear in the Biographical Memoires of the National Academy of Sciences.

(With additional material from JOSA 51, 379, an obituary published in the Washington Post (16 April 1997), and Tousey's Curriculum Vitae.)

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy Naval Research Laboratory.

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