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Yoji Kondo (1933–2017)

Published onDec 01, 2017
Yoji Kondo (1933–2017)

Yoji Kondo, astrophysicist, space scientist, and science fiction writer, died on 9 October 2017. Born in Hitachi, Japan, on 26 May 1933 to Tsuneo and Hama Kondo (née Yamada), Kondo’s early interest in world travel led to his undergraduate studies in Portuguese Literature at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he received his B.A. in 1958. With the death of his father when he was 17, Kondo supported himself while at school as a translator and interpreter. After graduation, he worked for the giant Japanese keiretsu (conglomerate) Sumitomo in São Paolo, Brazil, for nine months until deciding to take up something more meaningful — to contribute to the store of human knowledge.

Kondo arranged a transfer to Sumitomo’s New York office, studied physics at the City College of New York, and then applied for doctoral studies in astronomy. Having applied to several schools where he thought he had a good chance of admission, he found himself with one extra stamp, so on a whim, he applied to the University of Pennsylvania. Much to his surprise, he was accepted as a probationary student there, and matriculated in 1961. During one summer break, he was able to work at the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. During another summer, while translating at the World’s Fair in New York, he met the Emperor of Japan. Interestingly, the Emperor did not talk directly with people in those days: Kondo spoke in Japanese, and the Emperor’s translator repeated what he said to the Emperor, so the two spoke back and forth, in Japanese, through the “translator.”

In 1965, Kondo was awarded his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania, completing the thesis, “The Eclipsing Variable Systems BV 342 and BV 267.” His thesis advisor, Frank B. Wood, later stated that Yoji Kondo had been his brightest student, in a long career of mentoring. After Penn, Kondo received a National Academy of Sciences post-doctoral fellowship to conduct research at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). In 1968, fellow astronomer and NASA astronaut Karl Henize recruited him to work at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (later Johnson Space Center), in Houston, on the design of a moon-based astronomical observatory. Kondo and his wife, Ursula (Tütermann) Kondo, moved with their infant daughter Beatrice to Nassau Bay, Texas, that year. He became head of Johnson Space Center’s astrophysics lab, although sadly, the use of Saturn V rockets was discontinued, and no lunar observatory was ever built. In Texas, he resumed his earlier studies in judo, and later took up aikido as well. Through Dr. Henize, Kondo’s name came to the attention of noted science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who called him with some questions about astronomy, beginning a lifelong friendship.

The Kondo family (now including daughters Cynthia, born in 1969, and Angela, born in 1974), returned to Maryland in 1978, where Kondo continued his career with NASA, becoming Project Scientist for the legendary International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) and later the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE). Throughout his career, Yoji Kondo published over 150 peer-reviewed publications; edited/co-edited eleven scientific books (including X-ray Binaries, The Local Interstellar Medium, Exploring the Universe with the IUE Satellite, Evolutionary Processes in Interacting Binary Stars, Observatories in Earth Orbit and Beyond, The Realm of Interacting Binary Stars, and Space Access and Utilization Beyond 2000); served as a special advisor to NASA Administrator Dan Goldin; and was President of two International Astronomical Union (IAU) Commissions (“Astronomy from Space” and “Close Binary Stars”) and one IAU Division (“Variable Stars”). He organized the 1994 IAU symposium Examining the Big Bang, and co-edited its proceedings (Kluwer Academic Publishers). At various times in his career, he held academic appointments at the University of Oklahoma, University of Houston, University of Pennsylvania, George Mason University, Institute of Space & Astronautical Research in Japan, University of La Plata in Argentina, and Catholic University of America.

In 1979, in Maryland, Kondo founded the Columbia Aikido & Judo Club, advancing to 6th degree black belt in judo, and 7th degree black belt in aikido. Through Robert Heinlein, he met author John Maddox Roberts, and they began collaborating on multiple novels (Kondo under the nom de plume Eric Kotani). Because of his scientific acumen, he was invited to speak to the Writers of the Future at the United Nations in New York, and later became a judge for Writers of the Future for many years.

Kondo’s professional honors include: the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the Federal Design Achievement Award (concurrently issued with the U.S. Presidential Award for Design Excellence), and the National Space Club’s Science Award — in addition to seven other awards from NASA, Johnson Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and the European Space Agency. He also received the Isaac Asimov Memorial Award in science writing for 2002, whose previous recipients include Arthur C. Clark, Stephen Hawking, Stephen J. Gould, and Charles Sheffield. Asteroid 8072 is named in his honor.

Yoji Kondo touched many people in many walks of life: science, martial arts, science fiction, and is remembered as friend, mentor, husband, father, and grandfather. He is survived by his wife Ursula, daughters Beatrice, Cynthia (and husband, William Reynolds), and Angela (and husband, Chris Gavin), and grandchildren Sabrael, Constance, and Aloysius. He was predeceased by his brothers Yasumasa and Hiroshi, but survived by his brother Akira, and nephews Sumio, Hidehiro, and Yoshihiro.

Obituary Written By: Beatrice Kondo (Johns Hopkins University); Alan Hirshfeld (UMass Dartmouth)

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