Late NASA Voyager imaging guru was NMSU’s first astronomy Ph.D.

WRITER: mbauma46
CONTACT: Reta Beebe, 575-646-4438, rbeebe

Bradford Smith led the imaging team for NASA’s Voyager missions and stoked the imaginations of people worldwide with pictures of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. He was also the first student to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences at New Mexico State University in 1973.

On July 3, to quote poet John Magee, Smith “slipped the surly bonds of earth … to touch the face of God.” He was 86.

In spite of his high school love for astronomy, Smith got his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at Northeastern University and joined the Army. But luck steered him back to his first love when he was assigned in 1955 to be the liaison to a group of astronomers at NMSU working with Clyde W. Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto.

As part of the Tombaugh papers in NMSU Library Archives and Special Collections, Smith’s oral history, recorded in 2001, details his time at the university and his close relationship with Tombaugh.

“I liked New Mexico. I liked the work that Clyde was doing. Clyde, by that time had infected me with a passion for planets, which being an amateur in the Boston area, observing conditions are certainly not good there and so, the planets were always kind of fuzzy little things in the eyepiece that I never paid all that much attention to,” Smith said in an interview with Herb Beebe, a retired NMSU astronomy professor. “It wasn’t until I got out to New Mexico and spent some time, particularly during the great Mars opposition of 1956, when Mars really came quite close. I would look at Mars through Clyde’s magnificent telescopes and could really see enormous amounts of detail and I became enthralled with this and developed a large interest in the planets at that time.”

Not that Tombaugh and Smith didn’t sometimes disagree.

“Clyde and I disagreed in one particular area and that had to do with visual observing vs. photography,” said Smith in the oral history interview. “Although I realized that photography could not catch the detail that visual observing could, I felt it was more reliable for what it did catch because there was a lot of subjectivity involved in visual observations; and so, throughout the rest of my association with Clyde, we took two different approaches. And in fact, they complemented one another very well.”

After getting out of the Army, Smith stayed with Tombaugh’s group at NMSU becoming director of the Planetary Group. Many detailed observations of Mars, Jupiter and Venus came from a program they established with a telescope set up in Smith’s backyard.

“We really did extraordinarily well with that 12-inch telescope. I mean, up until that time, the best pictures of the planets – that is Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – were pictures taken with the Hale telescope, Palomar. And we just did so much better with that 12-inch telescope (in Las Cruces). Textbooks began to appear with our pictures in them.

“At some point we realized that we would do much better if we had a real observatory set up on the mountain … and at some point, we had the funding to build the lower building up on ‘A’ Mountain and the program shifted from my backyard up to ‘A’ Mountain.”

Smith was already making his mark in astronomy while still at NMSU working on the Mariner Mission. He taught briefly at NMSU after earning his Ph.D. but spent most of his career at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona where he became more involved with NASA.

His fame and influence grew internationally from 1979 to 1989 while leading the NASA team bringing Voyager Mission images to the public across the globe, but he never forgot the students back in Las Cruces.

Smith was a pioneer in using electronic detectors, like the silicon chips known as CCDs now at the heart of cameras and smartphones, that were replacing photographic plates in telescopes. NMSU Astronomy Professor Reta Beebe said he allowed her students to join her working on the Voyager Mission at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

“He provided my students with that opportunity,” said Reta Beebe. “They had direct interaction with him. He allowed my students to be present in the mission work areas and interacting with the other people there at JPL. Brad’s decade of work and the fly-bys of the Voyager Mission past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune had a strong influence in general and specifically on their capabilities to handle public outreach.”

Gary Thomas, a retired astronomy professor from the University of Colorado, remembers Smith was Tombaugh’s assistant when he attended NMSU.

“As a freshly minted co-op student and an undergraduate in physics, I was very impressed by Brad, who became my role model,” said Thomas. “Brad was only a few years older than me, but he was so naturally gifted with a native intelligence that he seemed much older and wiser.”

“He was very personable, a good guy to talk with about anything,” said Herb Beebe. “He was one of the guys. He could tell good stories, he could tell good jokes, had a great sense of humor. We had some pretty good discussions. His personality was friendly but could have an edge to it.”

Herb’s wife, Reta Beebe, who took Smith’s place leading NMSU’s Planetary Group, remembers he always had charisma and a sardonic sense of humor.

“He would come up with quick quips that were funny,” she said. “I remember one press conference we were having in a large auditorium. One of the press people asked him ‘what would you say to Galileo if he were to walk into this room?’ And Brad says, ‘how have you lived so long.’”

Smith leaves behind his wife, Diane McGregor, three children, five grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and a portfolio of planetary images that people who’ve never met him will remember.

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