Harlan James Smith, 1924-1991

Harlan J. Smith, the director of McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas at Austin for 26 years, died on 17 October 1991 at the age of 67. He was responsible for building the astronomy department at Austin, for overseeing major additions to the facilities at McDonald Observatory and for pioneering public outreach programs.

Smith received his BA (1949), MA (1951) and PhD in astronomy (1955) from Harvard University. He joined the astronomy faculty at Yale University in 1953 and came to the University of Texas in 1963 to become chair of the department of astronomy and director of McDonald Observatory. That move coincided with the university's decision to assume responsibility for the operation of McDonald, after initially sharing that responsibility with the University of Chicago.

Smith had a strong belief in and zeal for bringing the message of astronomy to the public. He was legendary for his enthusiastic lectures to any group. He also developed the "Star Date" radio program, which is now heard worldwide. He strongly believed in humanity's destiny to explore space and supported that goal in any way he could.

As a researcher Smith discovered (with Dorrit Hoffleit) the optical variability of quasars. He studied the influence of solar wind on radio emissions from Jupiter and discovered the existence of a class of variable stars he named dwarf Cepheids.

Smith's later research interests included planetary radio emission analysis, quasars, variable stars, photometry and instrumentation. In addition to his research he served on many national scientific committees of NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council, and was chairman of the board of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

Smith was among the first astronomers to realize the importance of ground-based observations in the planning and support of space missions. In the 1960s he convinced NASA to fund the McDonald Observatory's 107-inch telescope for that purpose, and NASA still supports planetary research on that telescope. His effort also opened the door for other NASA-funded telescopes, such as some of those at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

Smith was a member of the National Academy of Sciences ad hoc committee on the Large Space Telescope (1966-70), a project that eventually resulted in the Hubble Space Telescope. As chair of the NASA Space Science Board committee on space astronomy and astrophysics (1977-80), he played a key role in proposing the Great Observatories series of orbiting telescopes, which includes the Advanced X-Ray Astronomy Facility, the Gamma Ray Observatory and the Space Infrared Telescope Facility as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. And Smith was chair of a national committee that recommended that NASA support the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence program.

Smith also developed the award-winning educational film series The Story of the Universe.

Smith's interest in international scientific cooperation and world peace were reflected in his hosting many scholars from around the world at the University of Texas, McDonald Observatory and his home.

Increasingly, international cooperation in space and on Earth became the focus of Smith's research. He had a particular interest in and love of China, which he visited several times, and he was responsibile for a very vigorous scientific exchange with that country. At the time of his death, he was working on the return of humans to the Moon and the establishment of lunar astronomical observatories. Smith's dream was that the coming decades would see increasing numbers of telescopes on the surface of the Moon, probing the universe under the ideal conditions the lunar environment affords.

                                             Thomas G. Barnes III
                                                    Frank N. Bash
                                                 James N. Douglas
                                              William H. Jefferys
                                                 J. Craig Wheeler
                                      University of Texas, Austin

Physics Today, August 1992, p. 83.

Harlan James Smith, 67, on Oct. 17, in Austin, Texas. He was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, and earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard. He married Joan Greene in 1950, and taught at Yale University from 1953 to 1963. He became a Friend by convincement and joined the New Haven (Conn.) Meeting. In 1963 he became chairman of the Department of Astronomy and director of McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas. There, he and his family joined Austin (Tex.) Meeting. Under his leadership, the university's astronomy program became one of the largest in the world. He oversaw construction of a 107-inch telescope at the observatory. He was an enthusiastic and dedicated teacher, and his love for his chosen field was contagious. One of his legacies is the Stardate radio program, heard daily by millions. Among his many awards was the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. The International Astronomical Union named asteroid 3842 "Harlansmith," after him. His dedication to international cooperation and peace led him to encourage a growing interchange of visitors between Texas and such countries as China, India, and the then-Soviet Union. He is survived by his wife, Joan Greene Smith; his children, Nathaniel, Julie, Theodore, and Hannah; three grandchildren; and his brother, Kenneth.

Friends Journal, May 1992, p. 40.

Dr. Harlan J. Smith, the former Edward Randall Jr. Centennial Professor in Astronomy at the Univ. of Texas and former Director of the University's McDonald Observatory, has been posthumously honored with the Harold Masursky Award for Meritorious Service to planetary science. This award is being bestowed by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the AAS. Dr. Smith passed away in 1991.

Harlan was born in 1924 and as a high school student, won one of the first Westinghouse National Science Talent Search awards. He completed his Ph.D. degree at Harvard University in 1955. He served as a Professor at Yale until 1963, and then went to the Univ. of Texas where he became the Chairman of the Astronomy Department and McDonald Observatory Director.

Harlan's great enthusiasm for astronomy and space science, and his gift for simple, yet subtle explanations made him an exceptionally succesful teacher. He taught astronomy to thousands of undergraduat students, supervised advanced degree programs for many students who are now recognized professional astronomers. Harlan's contributions to NASA and to the U.S. Space Program began in the 1960s with his realization of the importance of ground-based observations in support of NASA's mission-oriented programs. He was successful in persuading NASA to provide the McDonald Observatory 2.7m telescope as the first such facility for support of planetary missions. Harlan was also a long-time supporter of the use of lunar bases for astronomy.

Harlan's many years of exceptional service to the national astronomical scientific program and to planetary science were recognized in 1991 through his receipt of NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal.

The Meritorious Service Award, established by the DPS/AAS in 1991 and presented at its annual meeting in Munich Germany, is named in honor of the late Harold Masursky of the U.S. Geological Survey, an outstanding scientist who was a leader in establishing and accomplishing scientific objectives in both U.S. and international programs for planetary exploration.

AAS Newsletter, December 1992, pp. 11-12.

This page was served to you by Quasar, a Power Mac 6100/60. It was last modified on 940812.