Dr Henry Richter is a native of Long Beach, California, and has spent most of his life in that state. The main exception was his service in the US Navy, including a stint on board the USS John A. Bole, a “badly beat up” Sumner-class destroyer, at the tail end of World War II. From his naval career as an electronic technician’s mate, he then went to the California Institute of Technology where he received a BS (1952) and PhD (1955) in chemistry, with physics and electrical engineering minors. He was hired by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) after graduating, just in time for the (literal) launching of the space race when the USSR (the former Russian communist empire) orbited the world’s first satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957.
Henry was picked to oversee the development of America’s first earth satellite, Explorer I. Henry says he lobbied to get Dr James Van Allen’s package (a Geiger counter) on the satellite. This led to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which influence things from radio communications to the strength of the northern and southern auroras. The results from the Van Allen instrument were at first puzzling, largely because the instrument was saturated with the unexpectedly high levels of radiation surrounding the earth. Also, it was not until Explorer III that they had a tape recording of an entire orbit.
JPL was soon incorporated into a new agency that would grow to be world famous: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Before he left JPL in 1960, he oversaw the development of the scientific instrumentation for the Ranger program. This eventually led to the first successful spacecraft trip to the moon, whereupon it, “ … [purposefully] smashed into it, TV camera and all.” He also worked on the instrumentation for the Mariner program (the first US space missions to Mercury, Venus, and Mars),1 and the Surveyor program (the first spacecraft to perform soft landings on the moon).
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