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Robert E. Fried (1930–2003)

Published onDec 01, 2004
Robert E. Fried (1930–2003)

Professionals and friends knew him as Captain Bob; he was the captain of his airplane, Birdie, and of his observatory, Braeside. He was a man of many talents, and he incorporated those talents into his two main passions in life: flying planes and doing astronomical research.

Bob was born on December 14, 1930 in St. Paul, Minnesota to parents Dr. Louis and Emily Fried. His interest in astronomy began after he moved to Atlanta in the late 1950's as a pilot for Delta Airlines. It was there he joined the Atlanta Astronomy Club in 1960 and went on to become its President and also the President of the Astronomical League. Wanting a larger and better telescope than the usual department store variety, he took the advice of Patrick Moore, who suggested he build one himself. So he did. He obtained a military blank for a 16-inch Cassegrain and ground and polished the optics while the heavy parts were machined in the Delta Airlines shops after hours. His observatory protruded from the roof of his home and featured a modified silo dome, while the observer's controls were reminiscent of an airplane cockpit.

When it became obvious that the Atlanta climate offered little support for serious Astronomy, Bob moved his family and observatory to a higher, clearer site in the Rockies. There he built a new dome on Flagstaff Mountain near Boulder. Subsequent to meeting and conspiring with fellow enthusiast Edward Mannery, who became his lifelong collaborator, Bob upgraded his system for digital photometry and began to obtain magnitudes to a few percent accuracy. After grumbling about the windy and cloudy weather of the Rockies, Bob tried a site near Lowell Observatory and then finally settled on the best home for Braeside in 1976, a short walk through the pines from the US Naval Observatory. He ultimately created a building he dubbed "The Monastery" after Mt. Wilson, that housed a bedroom, darkroom, electronics shop, machine shop, library and telescope control console and upgraded his detectors to a CCD system in 1995. It was with this Observatory that he ultimately realized his dream of a computer automated observation system that would run unattended until sunrise. His web page stated the Mission of Braeside Observatory as "To make available through collaboration, research data requested by members of the astronomical community worldwide." It was Bob's ability to produce long strings of high quality data that led him to become known, mostly by word of mouth, to professional astronomers around the world, first in the variable star community and then in other fields as well.

The high quality of his observations and his ability and interest in close binary stars (cataclysmic variables) led him to be one of the first people contacted when observations were needed simultaneous with spacecraft data for multi-wavelength coverage or just for follow-up observations on some peculiar object that had been discovered. His ability to set up his program, let it run and close up automatically meant he could accomplish observations and yet sleep through the night. Captain Bob could be counted on to deliver the data fully reduced the morning after the observations, even though the space data might be months in arriving. ADS lists 117 publications from Bob, on topics that started with eclipsing binaries and expanded to ultimately include RS Cvn, RcrB, RR Lyr, Delta Scuti stars, as well as X-ray transients and his special love, cataclysmic variables. But he also worked on variable extragalactic sources, including Seyferts, BL Lacs, and Blazars. In June 1997, he attended the13th North American Workshop on Cataclysmic Variables in Teton Park, to the delight of members of the community who could finally meet the person who had made so many contributions to their programs. However, this obsession did not go without cost to his family. His dedication to observations and his equipment meant many missed dinners and family gatherings and was a source of much family ribbing.

In order to insure Braeside would continue to operate long after he could not be present, Bob and his wife, Marian, donated his observatory and adjacent home to the Arizona State University astronomy department for student use. In the last years of his life, he made sure everything worked for the students who used it in the early evening hours and then he continued on with his own research programs in the later half of the night and on weekends.

His interest in students was not limited to those using his own telescope, although many visited and used his observatory from as far away as New York. Bob made an effort to work with students in other schools. He helped Flagstaff High School to build their own observatory on their grounds and worked with students from other states.

Besides his night observing programs, Bob continued with his love and expertise in flying during the day. He donated his plane and time for volunteer mercy missions with Angel Flight and Flights for Life, flying patients to hospitals and medical supplies where they were needed. It was on one of these missions that Birdie went down about 40 miles north of Phoenix on November 13, 2003. The cause of the plane crash was not clear but the outcome was certain: the world had lost an admired, professional amateur astronomer and humanitarian. He is survived by his wife, Marian, his sister Louise, and his three daughters, Leslie, Sara and Amy, as well as stepchildren, grandchildren and many students he mentored. The stories told, and the pictures shown, at his Memorial at Lowell Observatory summarized a free-spirited and dedicated individual who lived life fully, joyfully and generously. His sense of humor, and spirited camaraderie will be missed as much as his observations.

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