In this final week of Black History Month, we remember a local hero who passed away on December 26, 2020. Dr. George Carruthers was an African American astrophysicist, scientist, engineer, inventor, and problem solver who profoundly impacted our understanding of space.
When Dr. Carruthers was honored by NASA during Black History Month in 2016, Charles F. Bolden Jr., the space agency’s administrator, said, “He has helped us look at our universe in a new way by his scientific work and has helped us as a nation see ourselves anew as well.”
Carruthers was born October 1, 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio to George, a civil engineer, and Sophia, a homemaker and postal worker. He became interested in physics, science, and astronomy through reading popular space fiction and a series of articles about space flight in Collier’s magazine.
He built his first telescope out of cardboard and lenses at age 10. Carruthers’ father passed away when the younger George was just 12, and the family moved to Chicago where they stayed with relatives, often visiting the cities museums and the Adler Planetarium. George won several science fairs, and joined various science clubs, including the junior division of the Chicago Rocket Society.
After graduating high school, he attended the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earning a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering (1961), a Master’s in Nuclear Engineering (1962), and a Ph.D. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering (1964) On finishing his Ph.D., he immediately accepted a position with the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) as a Research Physicist in 1964, having received a fellowship in Rocket Astronomy from the National Science Foundation. Carruthers spent the next 38 years of his life there.
He focused his attention on far ultraviolet astronomy, observing the Earth’s upper atmosphere and other astronomical phenomena. In 1966, he became a research assistant at the NRL’s E.O. Hulburt Center for Space Research where he researched ways to create visual images to understand the physical elements of deep space.
Carruthers was the principle inventor of the far ultraviolet camera/spectrograph which was used on the Apollo 16 mission to the moon in 1972. The 50-pound gold-plated camera system was used to produce ultraviolet photographs of the geocorona, Earth’s outermost atmosphere, as well as stars, nebulae and galaxies. A second version of the camera was sent on the 1974 SkyLab space flight to study comets and would later be used to observe Halley’s, West’s and Kohoutek’s comets. And, he went on to design even more telescopes that flew aboard NASA spacecraft.
Dr. Carruthers was awarded the Arthur Fleming Award in 1971, the Exceptional Achievement Scientific Award from NASA in 1972, the Warner Prize in 1973 and was named Black Engineer of the Year in 1987. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003.
Throughout his lifetime, Dr. Carruthers continued to share his passion with others. He helped create a program called the Science and Engineers Apprentice Program, which allowed high school students to spend a summer working with scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory. In 1996 and 1997, he taught a course in earth and space science for D.C. Public Schools science teachers.
President Barack Obama presented Dr. Carruthers with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2013. Credit: Jason Reed/Reuters
In 2002, he began teaching a two-semester course in earth and space science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where he had been involved since the 1990s as an evaluator for the school’s NASA-funded Center for the Study of Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Atmospheres. At night he took students to the school’s Locke Hall observatory to look at stars and planets from a telescope. He also helped high school students build telescopes in a summer outreach program at the university.
Dr. George Carruthers, who held the title of visiting assistant professor in the research fields of atmospheric physics and astrophysics at Howard University, died on December 26, 2020 in Washington, D.C. He was 81.