Space Pioneer Jack Townsend, W3PRB (SK)
John W. “Jack” Townsend, Jr, W3PRB, of Cabin John, Maryland, passed away October 29 due to complications from lung cancer. He was 87. Townsend -- an ARRL member -- was a rocket and satellite pioneer who was influential in creating the first meteorological, communications and Earth viewing satellite systems. He joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 1959 and later served as its Director from 1987-1990.
“Jack Townsend was truly one of the seminal figures in the history of NASA, and certainly, in the history of Goddard,” said current Goddard Director Rob Strain in a NASA press release. “The story of the space program simply could not be written without a chapter devoted to him. He dedicated his life to the exploration of space and the study of our planet, and humankind is richer for the knowledge he helped generate.”
Townsend earned his Bachelor of Arts, Masters of Arts and an Honorary Doctor of Science in physics from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was a World War II veteran and flew radar countermeasures aboard B-29s in the Pacific Theater. He was a live steam railroader, an orchid hobbyist, a sailor and for more than 65 years, a ham radio operator.
In 1949, Townsend joined the US Naval Research Laboratory as a research physicist, instrumenting V-2 rockets (captured from Germany at the end of World War II), Viking and Aerobee sounding rockets for upper air research. When NASA was created in 1958, he transferred with his Branch and the Vanguard Project into the new agency, becoming Chief of its Space Sciences Division. He helped form NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and became the Assistant Director for Space Science and Satellite Applications. Townsend was named Deputy Director of Goddard Space Flight Center in 1965 and continued to serve in that capacity until 1968.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Townsend the Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Science Services Agency, the predecessor agency to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon appointed him to the post of Associate Administrator of NOAA; he remained in that position until 1977.
After leaving the government service, Townsend joined the private sector. He was President of Fairchild Industries Space Division, and held senior executive positions at Fairchild, including Executive Vice President from 1977-1987. After the Space Shuttle Challenger accident, he returned to NASA at the request of then-NASA Administrator James Fletcher, serving essentially as general manager until the space shuttle safely returned to service. He retired in 1990 after almost three years as Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Townsend’s illustrious career included a number of important accomplishments. He was one of a three-man Presidential commission charged with negotiating the first peaceful uses of outer space programs with the Soviet Union. He chaired the National Research Council’s Space Application Board and led many influential studies for the National Academies and other organizations, including the seminal, Low-Altitude Wind Shear and Its Hazard to Aviation. In 1975, Townsend was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his work in developing meteorological polar and geostationary satellite systems.