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Thomas Michael Donahue (1921–2004)

Published onDec 01, 2004
Thomas Michael Donahue (1921–2004)

Thomas M. Donahue, one of the nation's leading space and planetary scientists and a pioneer of space exploration, died Saturday October 16, 2004, from complications following heart surgery. The Edward H. White II Distinguished University Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Michigan, Tom shaped space exploration through his scientific achievements and policy positions. His work started with the first use of sounding rockets following World War II and continued for almost 60 years.

Tom was born in Healdton, Oklahoma on May 23, 1921 to Robert Emmet and Mary (Lyndon) Donahue. His father was a plumber in the oil fields when Tom was born (Healdton OK was an oil town) and worked as a plumber in Kansas City for a time. Tom grew up in Kansas City, graduating in 1942 from Rockhurst College in that city with degrees in classics and physics. His graduate work in physics at Johns Hopkins University was interrupted by service in the Army Signal Corps. He obtained his PhD degree in atomic physics from Hopkins in the fall of 1947.

After three years as a post-doctoral research associate and assistant professor at Hopkins, Tom joined the University of Pittsburgh Physics Department in 1951. At Pittsburgh he organized an atomic physics and atmospheric science program that led to experimental and theoretical studies of the upper atmosphere of the Earth and other solar system planets with instruments flown on sounding rockets and spacecraft. He became Professor of Physics in 1959 and eventually Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Sciences and the Space Research Coordination Center at the University. In 1960 he spent a sabbatical year on a Guggenheim Fellowship at the Service d'Aeronomie in Paris, which began collaborations with French colleagues that flourished for more than 40 years.

In 1974 he became the Chairman of the Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Department, University of Michigan, a position he held until 1981. In 1986, he was named the Henry Russel Lecturer at the University of Michigan, the highest honor the University confers on a faculty member, and received the Atwood Award for excellence in research in 1994.

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and to the International Academy of Astronautics in 1986, Tom was a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the AAAS, and received an honorary degree of ScD from Rockhurst College in 1981. The same year he was awarded the Arctowski Medal by the National Academy of Sciences and the John Adam Fleming Medal by the American Geophysical Union. He received the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, two NASA Public Service Awards, the Space Science Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the National Space Club Science Award.

From 1982 to 1988 he was Chairman of the Space Science Board of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, where he was a strong advocate for unmanned space science missions within the federal space budget. He also served on numerous governmental, NRC, and National Academy of Science advisory boards and committees, and was an officer on the boards of several university consortia, such as the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the Universities Space Research Association. He recently served terms as chairman of the Visiting Committee for the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Arecibo Advisory Board and Visiting Committee, the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy, and the Committee to Visit the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. He was Chairman of the Committee on Public Policy of the American Geophysical Union and authored more than 200 research publications.

Tom's influence in space exploration spanned many decades and diverse projects. He was an experimenter or interdisciplinary scientist on the orbiting Geophysical Observatory Missions, Apollo-17, Apollo-Soyuz, Voyager, Pioneer Venus Multiprobe and Orbiter, Galileo, Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby, and Cassini. Based on observations by the Pioneer Venus entry probe, he concluded that Venus once had an ocean before a runaway greenhouse effect led to its current state. Analyzing similar data from Martian meteorites, he again argued for a substantial Martian ocean, anticipating the current series of missions to Mars. In these and many other cases he laid the foundation for our current understanding of planetary atmospheres.

In 1999, Tom described his career this way, "I parlayed my training in atomic physics into a faculty position at Pitt, doing research in aeronomy and laboratory studies of atomic physics. This led to rocket and satellite exploration of the upper atmosphere of Earth in the 60s and spacecraft exploration of Mars, Venus and the Outer Planets beginning in the 70s. Along the way my students, post-docs and I were deeply involved in the problem of anthropogenic destruction of the stratospheric ozone in the early 70s. This led to my continuing interest in global change."

Throughout his life Tom retained a keen interest in the history of his family in Ireland, as his mother and grandfather both emigrated from County Kerry. He studied oral and written sources, writing as early as 1942 on the family and the early history of the Eóghanachta Rathleinn. Recently his efforts supported the establishment of the international O'Donoghue society, in particular spearheading a project that continues to reveal fresh detail about family migrations from the High Kings to the Cromwellian period.

Tom brought his powerful intellect and drive to a broad range of lifelong passions beyond science. Fluent in several languages, from classical Greek to modern Irish, he was also widely read in American, Irish and French history and literature, and was an exacting student of French wine. He loved classical and folk music, often singing hundreds of songs for his family in keys only he knew. A devotee of tennis, he continued playing weekly matches until early 2004, and was able to attend one last ceremony honoring him when the University of Michigan and his home department, awarded his friend and fellow Space Science Board chair, Lennard Fisk, the "Thomas M. Donahue Collegiate Professor of Space Science."

He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Esther McPherson Donahue of Ann Arbor, Michigan; their three sons -- Brian of Boston MA, Kevin of Berkeley CA and Neil of Pittsburgh PA; six grandchildren; a brother, Robert Donahue, and sister, Mary Marshall, both of Missouri.

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