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George R. Carruthers helped NASA see like never before

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
George R. Carruthers helped NASA see like never before
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The innovations of George R. Carruthers led to the development of the ultraviolet camera, which gave NASA a brand new view of the Moon, the stars and Earth’s atmosphere.

Yet, Carruthers came from the humblest of beginnings as a son of runaway enslaved Africans. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio on October 1, 1939 to George Archer and Sophia Singley Carruthers, little George was the first of four children, according to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

George’s father was a civil engineer at Ohio’s Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Despite his father moving the family to a small farm away from the city, George’s quiet curiosity about the stars continued to grow. He built his first telescope at the age of 10 from lenses he saw for sell in a magazine.

After his father’s death in 1952, Carruthers’ mother moved the family to Chicago. George continued to explore his fascination with spaceflight.

By 1964, Carruthers had earned a PhD in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. His thesis on experimental plasma dynamics and his experimentation with plasma engines for small rockets propelled him to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

George Carruthers made innovative contributions to NASA and the field of science

It was during the ‘60s that he designed, built, tested and patented his ultraviolet camera/spectrograph, establishing the first Moon-based observatory. In a time when big, bulky telescopes were needed to produce reliable images, yet were too big to fit on Apollo spacecraft, Carruthers found a way to amplify the incoming light signals while retaining a small enough size to fit aboard the spacecraft.

Hollywood’s “Hidden Figures” film introduced millions to the lesser known story of the brilliant Black women who helped calculate NASA’s first successful mission to the Moon. The pioneering George R. Carruthers helped build upon that legacy. His device allowed astronauts to take 200 photos of the Moon, stars and the Earth’s atmosphere like never before during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972.

Like NASA’s Katherine Johnson, who at age 97 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2015, George R. Carruthers received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama three years earlier.

“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” President Obama said in 2012.  “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this Nation great—and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

Determined to give back to his community, Carruthers became a symbol for the importance of supporting Black and Brown students in the fields of science. In 1987, he was named Black Engineer of the Year, according to the Lemelson-MIT program (LMIT).

George Carruthers passed away at 81 in 2020, leaving behind a rich legacy of innovation and Black excellence.

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