Henry Richter

b. 1927
by David F. Coppedge

On January 31, 2018, our Creation Scientist of the Month, at age 90, celebrated the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1: America’s first satellite. He was not only present at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on the historic day of January 31, 1958, he was a key figure in its success. Dr Henry Richter managed the satellite, its instruments, and its ground communications, and was the first to confirm that it had reached orbit. This was before America even had a space agency. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed as a result of the success of the Explorer satellites, which had imbued Americans with a renewed sense of pride after the Russians had beaten them to space with Sputnik 1 (October 4, 1957) and Sputnik 2 (November 3, 1957). Richter continued advancing space technology as America began the race to the moon. But his own trajectory would not be smooth. Henry Richter (not to be confused with Charles Richter of ‘Richter Scale’ fame) would experience a series of mishaps and failures before understanding the true secret of success. Along the way, he would also find satisfying explanations for the amazing designs he grew to appreciate on his own vessel: ‘Spacecraft Earth.’

Artwork by J. Beverly Greene commissioned for this biography. All rights reserved.

Because Dr Richter is a living legend, we can have him describe this in his own words. This is from the introduction to his latest book, Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers.

This book is the result of a number of friends urging me to put into writing some of the content of talks that I have given about my life and scientific interest. By way of introduction, I am a PhD from Caltech (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA) and a former “rocket scientist.” I was honored as a “Spaceflight Pioneer” in 2008, during the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Earth Satellite Explorer I. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics awarded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory the Annual Achievement Award, and I was invited to receive the Award along with the present JPL Director and the three surviving former JPL Directors. It was quite a time with about 2500 in attendance at the banquet in Washington D.C., with everyone in “black tie.”

Dr Richer (2nd from left) receiving AIAA award on behalf of JPL with surviving JPL directors, including Bruce Murray, Ed Stone, and Charles Elachi. Washington DC, May 2008.

But before these honors came, a lot of things happened, not all of them pleasant. Dr Richter’s story is one of very high ups and very low downs. Let him tell about his initial upward trajectory that led to his involvement in the exploration of space in the initial days of JPL.

I have always been interested in science and in finding out the cause behind a variety of things. I started by experimenting with a chemistry set when in the third grade. My parents were art teachers in the local high school, and so the next summer when they needed some place to park me, the high school chemistry teacher allowed me to sit in on the chemistry summer school course. I excelled in the sciences in high school. We lived in the semi-rural community of Rolling Hills in southern Los Angeles County. My parents built a laboratory building onto the garage for me in high school days.

This was during World War II, and I cut my high school time by one semester to enter the U.S. Navy. Because I had a ham radio license, I was able to sign up to become an electronic technician and went through the Navy schools. The war ended about this time, and my short 16 month’s career in the Navy came to a close. I managed to gain acceptance into a fine school, the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech as it was called. After leaving the Navy and before starting Caltech, I went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for one semester and then got married. I was just marking time at Northwestern waiting to get into Caltech and only took three courses: geology, the philosophy of ethics and morals, and English.

When I started attending Caltech, I did well, and because of my first-term grades, I was placed in the “honor section.” Because of my primary interest in chemistry, I elected chemistry as a major. I took a pretty typical physical science course schedule, and for an elective, I took genetics instead of astronomy. I undertook several undergraduate research projects, one of which was in the physics department, and another in the analytical chemistry department. These all fed into my curiosity about the universe and what made it tick. I also took on several summer jobs which fed into my staple of skills and knowledge. I might also mention that by the time I came to the end of my undergraduate years, my wife and I had three children. This is known as an additional incentive to get a career going and develop some income.

I also did graduate work at Caltech, graduating with a PhD with a major in Chemistry and minors in Physics and Electrical Engineering. I went to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the mid-1950’s when the space program was just starting. JPL was operated by Caltech, and was a great place to go to work. At the time, it was a guided-missile research and development organization, part of the U.S. Army. It was associated with the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where Dr Wernher von Braun was Director. Although not part of our recognized mission, we developed an earth satellite and a launch vehicle, hoping someday to put a satellite into orbit. Our chance came when in 1957 the Russians launched their Sputniks, and the U.S. government gave us the go-ahead to launch our little 30-pound satellite.

Fortunately, as Dr Richter relates matter-of-factly, “It was successful.” Hidden behind that assessment was a national sigh of relief after the embarrassing failure of the Navy’s Vanguard mission on December 1, 1957. Even with von Braun’s strong reputation with his Jupiter-C rockets at the Army installation in Huntsville, Alabama, President Eisenhower had given the Navy, for political reasons, the first opportunity to try to catch up with the Russians. In his eyewitness-account book America’s Leap Into Space: My Time at JPL and the First Explorer Satellites, Dr Richter describes what happened. America was panicking with two Russian Sputniks up. The last thing they needed was this:

On December 6, another major event with major newspaper headlines occurred. This was the highly publicized and real-time television launch of the first Vanguard satellite. The Vanguard folks were pressured into speeding up the launch of their Test Vehicle #3 with a less than minimal satellite 6-inches in diameter, nicknamed the “grapefruit.” This carried only a beacon transmitter to prove it was in orbit and to make some geodesic measurements.

The was quickly named by the press as “Flopnik” after the three-stage rocket rose a few feet off the launch pad, lost thrust, sank back, and exploded into a monstrous ball of flame—all on life television. Another national embarrassment! This put all the more pressure on the Army, Huntsville, and JPL…

That national embarrassment can be witnessed today on YouTube. Re-living the times, you can imagine how national pride was restored, and then soared ahead with hope, when von Braun, James Van Allen and JPL Director William Pickering hoisted a model of Explorer 1 over their heads at a hastily-assembled early morning press conference after Dr Richter in California called Washington to confirm that Explorer 1 was in orbit.

The success of Explorer 1 prompted Senator Lyndon Johnson (later President) to spearhead the National Space Act, which passed in July. It created a new civilian space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA re-oriented the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from its position as an Army research center to a new scientific center with the “role of exploring the moon, the planets, and deep space” using unmanned spacecraft. And so Henry Richter was there as a key manager during this historic transition that ushered in JPL’s illustrious history of exploration, from the earth to the moon to all the planets and even to deep space.

Five Explorers were launched in 1958, two of them failing due to rocket problems (2 and 5), three successfully launching Richter’s satellites into orbit (1, 3, and 4). Explorer 3 finally solved a data anomaly that had puzzled Van Allen’s team. Data from the onboard Geiger counter seemed to go blank at certain points in the orbit. It turned out that there were so many ‘clicks’ from the detector that the recorder became saturated. Dr Van Allen concluded that there must be unseen belts of high energy particles surrounding the earth. Once confirmed, they were named the Van Allen Belts in his honor. These belts have more than academic interest for earthlings. A pair of Van Allen Probes, launched by NASA in 2012, determined that they protect us from “killer electrons” that could threaten life on earth (see Creation Evolution Headlines 11/29/14).

News article about Dr Henry Richter learning Russian

In August, 1958, Dr Richter was selected to speak in Moscow about the Explorer program to a gathering of scientists for the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an international effort to understand the earth environment. He decided to give his speech in Russian. Not being a Russian speaker, he took an immersive course in Russian by instructional tape, becoming fluent enough to understand and pronounce the words adequately with help from a friend, Joe, who spoke Russian. Joe translated Richter’s paper into Russian, using a special Russian typewriter JPL bought for him, but there was another problem: Richter couldn’t read the Cyrillic alphabet. “I had him read it onto a dictation tape, and I then transliterated it into English characters so I could read it at the meeting.” The Moscow meeting had printed translations in English and French, but the delegates were delighted when Richter proceeded to give his paper in Russian. He even took two questions at the end and answered them in Russian. “Needless to say, this was the hit of the American delegation,” he says (America’s Leap, p. 159).

Dr Richter became increasingly prominent at JPL in those heady days of the space race, particularly the race to the moon. With the Explorer successes behind, he became responsible for the engineering team planning the scientific instrument packages for the Ranger program, which took the first close-ups of the lunar surface before impacting, and then for the Surveyor missions that soft-landed on the moon. Surveyor 1 (1966) proved that the lunar surface could support landing and astronauts. Before the Surveyors, some scientists expected that lunar dust would be so deep after billions of years of accumulation that, as Thomas Gold (an astronomy consultant to NASA) worried, a lander would sink out of sight in the dust. Richter confirmed to me in 2018 that lunar dust was “a real concern” at the time. In 1969, the Apollo 12 astronauts, walking on luna firma, visited the old Surveyor 3 craft that had landed in 1967, the second to successfully operate on the surface, and brought home its video camera.

Dr Richter’s team also planned the instruments for the legendary Mariner program that explored the inner planets, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. In addition, he planned the installation of a global network of radio dishes to capture the signals from spacecraft continuously as the earth rotated. Richter did site surveys in California, Australia and Spain that were selected for the Deep Space Network (DSN). The DSN continues to monitor spacecraft to this day, playing a vital role for national defense and the peaceful exploration of space. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013.

After leaving JPL in 1960, Dr Richter went to work for Electro-Optical Systems (EOS), a young high-technology research company in Pasadena. EOS was involved in a wide variety of scientific, engineering and military projects, and Richter, as  Vice President and Technical Director, was given oversight of scientific and engineering groups working on cutting-edge projects. At this time in his life, Richter was consumed with proving himself a success. He explains his reasons for leaving JPL:

I felt that by getting into private industry there would now be a means of measuring my success: that is, whether or not the company prospered. I had become disillusioned in working for the government. I had come to the sad realization that in government work you get ahead by your connections, not your successes. I thought that by going into private industry, without the political interference, this disregard of success would be different.

Unfortunately, he found things much the same at EOS, because they only had one customer: the US Government! In the stop-and-start world of government contracting, he didn’t feel he could take credit for the company’s good performance. So he moved on.

Next, Dr Richter joined the staff of Professor Willard Libby at UCLA as Sr. Research Geophysicist. Dr Libby  is famous for his invention of the carbon-14 dating method. Richter was given the assignment to be Development Manager for a proposed Mountain Park Research Campus. It was a grand plan to build a new interdisciplinary UCLA campus on 454 acres of land offered on the top of the Santa Monica mountains. However, due to the large reduction in the UC Regents discretionary funds by the cost-cutting newly elected California Governor Ronald Reagan, the new campus did not get far into the planning stage. Richter moved on once again.

In his ongoing quest to prove himself a success by his own efforts, Dr Richter bought a small company that built standard time and frequency radio receivers. Now, he thought his success could be measured by catalog sales. But as he had been warned from his former boss at EOS, “there is only one thing worse than doing business with the government—and that is, NOT doing business with the government!” Unfortunately, despite long hours and hard work, he could not keep the company viable. He cashed in all his stock earnings from EOS trying to succeed, but got to the point where those resources were all gone, and his company was still not prospering. The Lord was going to teach this future Christ follower some lessons about true success. In his book Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers, Richter describes this low point in his life:

I suddenly had no resources left, and a business that was still losing money every month. Needless to say, this is a terrible predicament for an entrepreneur to be in. Worse than that, though, was the condition of my personal and family life. While pursuing my own selfish goals of success, I had let the most important things in life deteriorate to the breaking point. It’s with sadness that I tell you I was the proverbial workaholic and absentee husband and father. My family came apart, and I ended up alone trying to raise five kids, mainly teenagers still at home. Although my Caltech textbooks told me a great deal about this phenomenal physical universe and the laws that govern it, none of my academic training ever said anything about how to live life! I knew it was time to start learning that most important lesson. My goals for scientific success and business success left me disappointed. Meanwhile, because of my own pride and selfishness, I had proven very unsuccessful in my personal life and relationships.

Finding Success the Hard Way

God often works to humble a man before lifting him up. Richter had been a “nominal” church-goer, because it seemed the proper thing to do, but didn’t really believe all that “religious” stuff in the Bible. He had thought church-going would make him appear respectable – not a good motive! But now, in charge of his own business, he was broke, divorced, and lost for answers about how to live life. Sufficiently humbled after years of education in God’s school of success, Richter was now open to the things of God. The Lord supplied that hunger with a lady named Beverly. He says, “In my desperate search for the meaning and purpose of life, I looked for some source of information to guide me, without realizing how close it was.”

A lady named Beverly, who had been my secretary at EOS, was with me at this low point in my life. She enjoyed a life of peaceful purpose that attracted me. We started spending time together and I found out she was a Christian. She talked to me about having a personal relationship with the Creator. So for the first time, I decided to really consider the claims of the Bible. I knew I needed help. I had heard preachers call the Bible the ‘manufacturer’s manual’ for life. When all else goes wrong, they say, read the instructions!

Henry began to dig into the Bible, and for the first time, it made sense. It no longer seemed like a church textbook full of ancient writings irrelevant to modern life. As he read book after book, he found a remarkable unity in the Bible’s history, poetry, wisdom, encouragements and practical advice on how to live. It must have had a single Author, yet it was written over 1,600 years. The only Author who qualified, Henry reasoned, had to be the Creator of the universe and life. He felt like the everlasting Creator, God himself, was speaking to him through the Scriptures, making the words alive and real.

Then one day I was in my car driving on the 210 freeway to my little electronics plant in Monrovia, CA—another chance to look at the ‘red ink’ on my financial statement (more lost money)—and I suddenly felt the presence of Jesus Christ with me. All I could think of at that moment was: “Lord, if you want me, I sure want you”. That was October 4, 1969 (October 4 was the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik—another day in which my life was suddenly changed). I had agreed to a date with Beverly that night, and that was to go to Anaheim Stadium to hear a preacher I did not want to hear—Billy Graham. I did not tell her what had happened in the car, but I went with such joy and peace in my heart, it was unbelievable. When Dr Graham came to the point of inviting those in the audience that wanted to commit their lives to Jesus I was on my feet and heading down to the infield to make that call. Beverly was hanging on to me as she did not want to lose track of me in that huge crowd. After that experience, I felt washed totally clean inside—what a change!

I called Dr Richter on February 19, 2018, the day that Billy Graham graduated to heaven at age 99, knowing that Henry’s experience at that altar call almost 50 years prior would be a very special memory for him—and it was.

Henry and Beverly at their home in Escondido. Photo by David Coppedge, 2016.

From the day he received Christ in 1969 forward, Henry Richter was a changed man. His business circumstances remained challenging for the next few years, but being a child of God and a citizen of heaven transformed his outlook on life and success, and gave him a new heart for spiritual things. “I discovered all this,” he says, “because Beverly cared enough to share her faith with me.” We don’t want to omit the important footnote to the story: “Incidentally, I married her,” he quips with a grin. They remain happily married in their 90s.

After extricating himself from business woes, Henry rose into new successful ventures. Drawing on his expertise from JPL days, and as a proficient Ham radio operator, he became the Communications Engineer for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department from 1975 to 1977. From there, he entered a 35-year career as a consultant, with clients including four state governments, nine county governments, and 60 city governments in nine states from Hawaii to Oklahoma, plus numerous special districts, universities, school systems and over a dozen private businesses. “I was involved in the design of dozens of police and fire buildings, probably over a hundred 9-1-1 dispatch centers, radio and microwave systems,” he says. Only God knows how many lives were saved and crimes prevented by these systems.

Henry was 80 years old when I first met him at JPL in 2007. He was visiting the lab to research the early days of NASA for a book on Explorer 1. The lab gave him full access to archives where he could brush up his memory about names and events. The book came out in 2016: America’s Leap Into Space: My Time at JPL and the First Explorer Satellites. This important historical account begins from the viewpoint of the Russians, the Germans and the Americans, and climaxes with his own personal account of the lead-up to Explorer 1, the launch, and the subsequent successes of NASA. Richter includes anecdotes and details that would long have been forgotten without his great memory, and reproduces rare photos and documents. It’s an engaging read by an eyewitness. It can help young people who never lived through those days catch the excitement of man’s first entry into space.

Richter Becomes a Creation Evangelist

Henry’s path to Christ was converging with another path during these years. As a scientist, Richter had become increasingly impressed over the many features about the universe, the earth and life that seem too perfect to be products of chance, as evolutionists insist. After becoming a Christian, he began giving talks about some of the things he found, as described in this video clip:

Dr Richter spoke at dozens of Mayors and Leaders Prayer Breakfasts. He told me, “I was on National Staff of Christian Businessmen’s Committee of the USA as Southwestern Division Director for several years having the responsibility for Committees for six states,” all while doing his communications consulting work.  I heard his talk at JPL on January 30, 2008, the eve of the 50th Anniversary of Explorer 1, when he gave his personal testimony at the end—a bold move, even for a NASA VIP. But like Paul, Henry could say, “I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed” (II Timothy 1:12).

By request of people who had heard his talks, Henry wrote a small book describing some of the evidences for design in the universe and life that had convinced him God was real. In 2006, he self-published The Universe: A Surprising Cosmological Accident. As the book’s sole marketer, he would hand out copies of this 124-page book to friends and acquaintances. A few years after I left, I remembered the copy he had given me and I re-read it. It struck me this would be a great book for a wider audience if it could be expanded, updated and illustrated. After two years working with him to upgrade the book—with Beverly’s approval of each change—we began shopping for publishers. Fortunately, Creation Ministries International (CMI) became interested just at the right time. They knew Henry from an interview they had published in their Creation Magazine in July 2015. Eagerly taking on the project, they improved it even more with color illustrations and editorial help. Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers was released in November 2017. Filled with amazing facts about the universe, earth and life, this 167-page book will enrich the reader’s life with the many fascinating wonders of our orbiting ‘spacecraft’ as written by an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist and spacecraft pioneer. Henry’s personal story intermingled through the text makes it especially enjoyable to read. Consider using it as a witnessing tool for others; the book can be ordered in quantity at a discounted price from CMI.

On January 31, 2019—the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1—Henry was back at JPL as an honored guest. At age 90, his mind still as sharp as ever, he drove the 180 miles from his home in Escondido. He gave another talk to the lab like the one I had heard on the 50th anniversary, relating his experiences to an audience that, while building on his team’s success, had no personal familiarity with those pioneering days of the 1950s. The organizer of the event told him it was very well received. She shared some of the excellent comments that poured in. Celebrations for Explorer 1 were also held at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and in other cities around the USA.

JPL banner January 2018

It is a great honor to include Dr Henry Richter, a NASA V.I.P., a spacecraft pioneer and a Biblical creationist, to our list of great creation scientists that reaches back to Solomon and continues to the present. Richter exemplifies not only scientific excellence and leadership of our best luminaries, but also courage and passion to reach out to others and share the evidence for creation and for the truth of God’s word. Dr Richter’s joy in the Lord comes through in the final pages of his Spacecraft Earth book:

I didn’t find that relationship in my life until I was past the age of 40, but I am ever so thankful that I did, because now I have a personal bond with the Creator of the universe! All those amazing designs I saw in nature now make sense. I have a purpose in life. I’m heaven bound.

It is his desire that you will investigate the evidence yourself, and find not only the truth about creation, but the true secret of success as God defines it: forgiveness of sin, and love that comes from having a personal relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ. Now pick up a Bible and read the original, authentic Passenger’s Guide to Spacecraft Earth!

Addendum: Resume from HenryRichter.org:

Prior to beginning his consulting career, Dr. Richter served as a Section Chief at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he headed development of the free world’s first satellite — Explorer I. Dr. Richter also had responsibility for all scientific instruments for the Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner programs and spacecraft, and helped develop the world-wide DOD/NASA spacecraft tracking and communications network [Deep Space Network, or DSN]. He was honored in 2008 with the present and three former Directors of JPL by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Annual Achievement Award as a Spaceflight Pioneer.

Henry was then named Vice President and Technical Director of Xerox Electro-Optical Systems, Inc. (now Loral Corporation) in Pasadena, where he supervised a wide variety of scientific research, engineering development and hardware production in the fields of communications, upper atmosphere rocketry, tracking and telemetry, space power systems, exotic space propulsion systems, scientific instruments, semiconductor devices, computer applications, biosciences, and military hardware.

He then took up a challenge to serve as the Communications Engineer for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s extensive microwave and mobile radio networks, which ultimately led to the development of his consulting practice.

Dr. Richter received his Ph.D. in Chemistry, Physics, and Electrical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology, as well as his Bachelor of Science from the same institution. He was the first Newmont Fellow of the California Institute of Technology, is a Senior Life Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, a Senior Member Emeritus of the American Chemical Society, a Senior Member of the American Geophysical Union, and was elected a member of the New York Academy of Sciences. He is a recipient of the Otto Schmidt Medal awarded by the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Dr. Richter has served on the National Industrial Advisory Committee to the Federal Communications Commission, and the Evaluation and Advisory Panel on Time and Frequency of the National Bureau of Standards. He holds a First Class Radio-telephone License and an Amateur Extra Class Amateur Radio License issued by the Federal Communications Commission. He is a retired California Professional Engineer (QU5567).