Henry Richter

b. 1927
by David F. Coppedge

On January 31, 2018, our Creation Scientist of the Month, at age 90, will celebrate 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.

Let’s start with some basic achievements in his career as documented on 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).

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 see what 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, 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” with 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 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. 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 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. 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. Dr Richter 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) that continues to monitor spacecraft to this day.

Note: This biography is a work in progress. Come back throughout January, 2018 to hear Dr. Henry Richter’s story unfold.

In the meantime, read the article posted by Creation Ministries International today (Jan. 2).