“He will be remembered as an amazing scientist, engineer, professor, and mentor.” Those were the words of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSP) when it announced the death of its member Dr. George R. Carruthers, who passed away December 26 at a Washington hospital. A staunch supporter of the organization, “Carruthers is considered the inventor of the ultraviolet camera/spectrograph. He also invented the camera that took the first images of space. His work has been instrumental in the fields of astrophysics,” the statement from the NSP continued.
Indeed, Carruthers, who in 2012 received America’s highest honor for technology achievement, is one of America’s leading innovators. His many creations revealed a lot more about space and the Earth’s atmosphere. From the 1960s when he joined the Naval Research Laboratory until his death, Carruthers was a pioneer in the use of ultraviolet astronomy to learn more about the universe.
To date, he is well remembered for developing the Apollo 16 far ultraviolet camera and spectrograph. Positioned on the moon’s surface in 1972, the gold-plated camera system allowed researchers to, for the first time, examine the Earth’s atmosphere for concentrations of pollutants. Thanks to his camera, researchers were also able to take readings of and understand objects and elements in space that could not be recognized with the naked eye, according to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. What’s more, the 50-lb camera system gave scientists views of stars and the solar systems thousands of miles away. The camera still sits on the surface of the moon.
“What we had proposed to do was set up a camera on the surface of the moon to observe the Earth and study its hydrogen atmosphere, which extends out to many thousands of miles,” explained Carruthers. “Even the space station and the shuttle can’t get far enough away to really study the higher atmosphere.”
Carruthers had before his camera system received a patent for his pioneering instrumentation, “Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiation Especially in Short Wave Lengths”, which was used to identify molecular hydrogen in space. The physicist and space scientist went on to help introduce other electronic telescopes that were used on board NASA satellites to transform light into electrical signals which are then relayed to Earth and televised, a report by Astronomers of the African Diaspora said.
Carruthers is also praised for his other cameras that have been aboard space shuttles to survey the ozone layer and to transmit photos of distant stars and planets for computer analysis, the report added.
Carruthers’ feat in the space world should not be surprising, however. Born on October 1, 1939, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Carruthers grew up during the space race and developed an interest in physics. His father, being a civil engineer, encouraged him to pursue his passion. By the age of 10, Carruthers had constructed his own telescope with cardboard tubing and lenses he ordered through the mail.
Thus, by the time he entered the University of Illinois in 1957, he had a good knowledge of astronomy. At the University of Illinois, he earned a B.S. in physics in 1961 and an M.S. in 1962. In 1964, Carruther earned his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. That same year, after being awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship in rocket astronomy, he joined the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. as Research Physicist.
Along the way, he became the Principal Investigator for research project before setting off as an expert in ultraviolet radiation. Carruthers then became head of NRL’s Ultraviolet Measurements Branch with his first major contribution in this area being when he led the team that invented the far ultraviolet camera/spectrograph used for the Apollo 16 mission to the moon in 1972.
“…You might say that the Apollo era was the high point not only of my activities, but space science in general, because it was a fast-paced program and there were no funding restrictions, whereas nowadays in the shuttle program, there is no urgency to fly anything, and the funding is, at least in relative terms, adjusted for inflation, is much harder to get,” Carruthers said in an interview.
A second version of the space scientist’s camera was sent on the 1974 Skylab space flight to study comets and later to observe Halley’s Comet, and so on. Carruthers would continue his work at the NRL, developing a telescope to be used in space, and other electronic cameras and devices. Before his passing, Carruthers played active roles in the promotion of science and technology among young people, particularly Black Americans.