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Bruce C. Murray dies at 81; former director of JPL

Bruce C. Murray's push to study the images of planetary surfaces played a major role in keeping NASA's exploration program alive.

August 29, 2013|Thomas H. Maugh II
  • Bruce C. Murray joined JPL in 1960 and became its director in 1976.
Bruce C. Murray joined JPL in 1960 and became its director in 1976.

Although most of his fellow space scientists scoffed at the idea, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Bruce C. Murray insisted that a picture of a planet's surface was worth a thousand words — or at least as much as the measurements of magnetic fields and particle concentrations that his colleagues favored in the early days of planetary exploration in the 1960s.

"Pictures," said Louis Friedman, a founder and former executive director of the Planetary Society, "were considered a stunt."

But Murray, a former petroleum geologist who joined JPL in 1960 and became its director in 1976, played a key role in changing that view. Spectacular pictures of the surfaces of Mars and other planets are almost routine now, a development due in large part to Murray's forceful advocacy that studying images of the surfaces of other planets could help us learn about our own.

He played a key role in the 1964 launch of Mariner 4 to Mars, the first mission to send back pictures from any planet. That "was the beginning of comparative planetology," Friedman said. The procurement of pictures not only began to play a key role in all planetary exploration but helped keep the space exploration program alive when successive presidential administrations attempted to shut it down, he said.

Murray, 81, fought vigorously to maintain the program during his six years as director of JPL from 1976 to 1982, and with Friedman and Carl Sagan founded the Planetary Society, a leading organization promoting the exploration of the solar system.

He died early Thursday at his home in Oceanside from complications of Alzheimer's disease, his longtime friend Charlene Anderson said.

"He worked tirelessly to save our nation's planetary exploration capability at a tumultuous time when there was serious consideration for curtailing future missions," JPL Director Charles Elachi said in a statement Thursday, adding that "we today enjoy the privilege of exploring the heavens in no small measure because of Bruce's leadership."

Murray joined Caltech as a planetary astronomer, but he was soon invited to join the imaging team of JPL's first two missions to Mars, Mariners 3 and 4. His role was less about developing the imaging equipment than in deciding the best way to use it. He had a similar function on Mariners 6, 7 and 9 and led the imaging team for Mariner 10. Using images from these missions, he began to construct a geological history of the planet.

"He was centrally involved in the earliest explorations of Mars and Mercury, and he made seminal contributions to our understanding of the role of water on Mars and other bodies," Caltech planetary science professor David Stevenson said.

In the early 1970s, NASA was planning two Viking missions to Mars to search for life on the Red Planet. Murray, however, argued that the missions were premature and should be postponed until scientists had a better understanding of the chemistry on the planet's surface.

NASA discounted his objections and proceeded with the missions. His views were upheld, however, when one of the Viking experiments showed the apparent presence of metabolic products of life. Further study suggested instead that the finding was an artifact produced by nonbiological processes in the highly oxidizing Martian soil.

Combined with his successes on the Mariner missions, his insightful criticism of the Viking program led to his being named JPL director in April 1976 when the fourth director, William H. Pickering, retired from the La Cañada Flintridge center. It proved an extremely difficult time to lead a planetary exploration program. The Apollo era was winding down, and NASA was focusing on the shuttle program and Earth observations. Successive presidential administrations and Congresses severely curtailed deep space exploration.

Nobody in Washington, D.C., thought that planetary exploration should not be carried out, Friedman said. "They simply thought that it wasn't very important, that it was something that could always wait."

Murray's outspokenness did not win him many friends in Washington as he fought to maintain planetary programs. He was successful in keeping the Galileo mission to Jupiter alive, but he could not win approval for the American half of the two-satellite International Solar Polar Mission. JPL's instrument for that mission was, however, later launched on the European Space Agency's Ulysses mission in 1990.

To assist in promoting planetary exploration, Murray, Sagan and Friedman founded the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization whose mission was to support and lobby for deep space exploration. Sagan was the first president, but Murray assumed the presidency when Sagan died in 1996.

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