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Obituaries

Adolf Thiel; Oversaw Early Space Programs

July 12, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adolf Thiel, an Austrian-born scientist who helped the United States guide some of its earliest rockets into space, died June 2 in Los Angeles. He was 86.

During his three decades with TRW Inc.'s space division in Redondo Beach, Thiel directed the development of the Thor ballistic missile, still the basis for the rockets used today to launch NASA and commercial satellites into space. He also oversaw the design of Explorer VI, Pioneer V and other successful spacecraft programs during the 1960s and 1970s.

Thiel was among the group of German scientists who were smuggled into the United States by the Army near the end of World War II with Wernher von Braun, who built rockets for the Nazis and went on to lead the NASA team that put a man on the moon in 1969.

Thiel had been an associate professor of engineering at the Institute of Technology in Darmstardt, Germany, and helped von Braun design the German V-2 rocket, which was used to attack England during the closing months of World War II.

During the nine years Thiel worked for the U.S. Army, he supervised preliminary design of the Redstone missile and other short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile systems.

He left the Army in 1955 to join Space Technology Laboratories, which later became TRW. During the late 1950s, he was program manager for the Thor ballistic missile, which quickly became a first-stage launch for the Explorer spacecraft.

He was director of space projects for TRW when it developed and successfully launched Explorer VI and Pioneer V, two of the nation's earliest craft to explore interplanetary space.

Explorer VI, launched in August 1959, is credited as the first spacecraft to take photographs of the Earth. Pioneer V, launched in March of 1961, was the first to map interplanetary magnetic fields. Both spacecraft also set distance records.

Thiel oversaw all of TRW's space programs during the 1970s. After his retirement in 1980 as a senior vice president, he remained active as an executive consultant to TRW and served on NASA planning groups. He was named a fellow of the American Astronautical Society in 1968.

Thiel is survived by his wife, Frances, of Palos Verdes; two sons, Michael of Palos Verdes and Chris of Solana Beach; and three grandchildren.

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