Durrance, one of only a few astronomer-astronauts, was instrumental in designing, building, and operating the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope (HUT) as part of the Astro-1 and Astro-2 payloads on two Space Shuttle missions.
Samuel Thornton Durrance (“Sam”) died peacefully near his home in Viera, Florida, on Friday, May 5, 2023. Sam is regarded by his colleagues, family, and students as a role model of remarkable character, admired for his intelligence, kindness, gentleness, selflessness, and humility.
As an astronomer, Sam made several seminal discoveries in the fields of exoplanet formation, very low-mass stars, and brown dwarfs. Over the course of his career, he published dozens of papers on topics ranging from planetary astronomy and atmospheric physics to adaptive optics and spacecraft operations. As a professor, Sam was a mentor to many. “He inspired countless students to pursue their dreams and make their mark in the world,” writes his son Ben.
Lesser known is Sam’s “winding path” to becoming a scientist and educator. As a young man, he left home and moved to Los Angeles, California, to “race cars, chase girls and become an actor.” He held several odd jobs then, including box making and olive packing. Then after a chance meeting with Richard Feynman, he was inspired to pursue a career in physics. He soon also directed his academic efforts toward realizing his dream of becoming an astronaut.
At California State University, Los Angeles, he earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics in 1972 and 1974, respectively. He completed a Ph.D. in astrogeology at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1980, a degree he said was “a lot like a planetary science degree.”
Sam arrived at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in 1980, as one of the first members of the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope (HUT) project team, which was led by Professor Arthur Davidsen. HUT had been selected for development by NASA in 1978, with the intent of making multiple Space Shuttle flights dedicated to ultraviolet astronomy.
As a principal research scientist at JHU, Sam designed and built many spectrometers, detectors and imaging systems, and made numerous observations of planets and low-mass stars with ground- and space-based telescopes. Notably, he was on the team that, in 1995, discovered Gliese 229 B, the first unambiguous detection of a brown dwarf.
In 1984 Sam was selected to fly as a Payload Specialist with HUT on the Space Shuttle orbiter. However, due to the Challenger tragedy and other delays, he would remain grounded for several years. He eventually fulfilled his dream of space flight twice, on Columbia in 1990 during STS-35/Astro-1 and on Endeavour in 1995 during STS-67/Astro-2.
Over both missions, Sam logged over 615 hours in space, and he and the other crew members made observations of hundreds of objects in the ultraviolet spectrum with HUT, NASA Goddard’s Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (UIT), and the Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photo-Polarimeter Experiment (WUPPE).
After leaving JHU in 1997, Sam served as Director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, Director of the Florida Space Grant Consortium, and in 2001 as the Executive Director of the Florida Space Research Institute hosted at NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC). In 2005, he joined the Physics and Space Sciences Department at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida, where he engaged in cross-disciplinary research and provided students with unparalleled access to opportunities in astronomy and space exploration.
“His commitment to education and innovation earned him numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the Space Foundation’s highest honor, the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award,” son Ben continues.
Sam’s dedication to science and service extended into every area of his life. He often gave talks to the public, to students, and to his church, repeatedly recounting his experiences in space, and he was a frequent participant in KSC’s Astronaut Experiences.
After a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2021 and Parkinson’s in 2022, Sam retired as professor emeritus from Florida Tech. He passed on May 5, 2023, at the age of 79. He is survived by his three siblings, his wife Rebecca, his two children Ben and Susan, and seven grandchildren.
Editorial assistance provided by Nicolle Zellner and Scott Vangen, with additional content from Rebecca Durrance.