Frank B. Mcdonald May 28, 1925 - Aug. 31, 2012 Former NASA Chief Scientist Who Aided Space Exploration

Article excerpt

Frank B. McDonald, an astrophysicist and former NASA chief scientist who helped design scientific instruments for research flights into space and who was a key force behind several initiatives and programs that helped scientists peer into the reaches of the solar system, died Aug. 31 at a scientific symposium in Ypsilanti, Mich. He was 87.

The death was announced by the University of Maryland, where Mr. McDonald had been a senior research scientist at the Institute for Physical Science and Technology. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after giving a speech, said his wife, Irene McDonald.

Mr. McDonald's career in space physics spanned more than a half- century, starting with experimental research in the mid-1950s to measure the radiation above the Earth's atmosphere. His mentor in this effort was James A. Van Allen, a University of Iowa physicist who became a leader in space research and for whom the radiation belts encircling the Earth were later named.

In 1959, Mr. McDonald became one of the earliest scientists to join the new Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and he continued cosmic ray research as head of the energetic particles branch for the next 11 years.

During that time, Mr. McDonald provided the conceptual framework on a series of small spacecraft known as the international monitoring platforms, or IMP. Built at Goddard, the IMPs sent scientific instruments to explore the region of space above Earth's atmosphere, above and beyond the Van Allen radiation belts. Among the scientific data collected by the IMPs was how auroral lights in the Earth's polar regions are affected by solar activity.

From 1970 to 1982, Mr. McDonald was chief of Goddard's lab of high energy astrophysics and helped design a satellite program with instruments that could study X-rays, gamma rays and cosmic rays -- emissions from distant galaxies that showed "the most violent aspects of universe," said Joseph K. Alexander, a radio astronomer who became McDonald's deputy as NASA's chief scientist in the 1980s. …