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NEWS | Feb. 27, 2017

NRL's Not-So Hidden Figure

By Jonathan B. Holloway

The box office hit film Hidden Figures is raising awareness towards overlooked contributions made by African-Americans in the science and technology (S&T) community.

Set in the 1960s, the biography depicts three African-American women who worked at NASA as human computers, performing mathematical computations by hand. Amazingly enough, without computers they provided critical calculations for space-mission flight trajectories in renowned NASA space missions, Project Mercury and Apollo 13. However, it is only recent these three-women have been nationally recognized for their significant contributions to space explorations and American history.

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and retired Dr. George Carruthers have a similar relationship with African-American history. Carruthers, however, is NRL's not-so hidden figure, long recognized for his achievements in the S&T community.

In 1969, Carruthers invented, and successfully patented, the Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiations Especially in Short Wave Lengths. His invention, a 50-pound, gold-plated telescope was used during Apollo 16, the NASA mission landing the first moon-based space observatory. The device allowed researchers the ability to examine molecular components in the Earth's atmosphere, and other cosmic phenomena thousands of miles away for the first time.

In 1971, he was awarded the Arthur S. Fleming Award, and in 1972 he received the Exceptional Achievement Scientific Award from NASA. The following year, Carruthers was presented with the National Civil Service League Exceptional Achievement Award.

Today, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has Carruthers' gold-plated telescope on display in its Apollo to the Moon gallery. In 1992 MASM's senior curator Dr. David Devorkin interviewed Carruthers' in 1992.

I was fascinated with learning more about the fellow who built the first telescope used on the moon, said Devorkin. His telescope still adorns the heart of the Apollo to the Moon gallery. For me, it's the heart.

Carruthers' research and innovation is still considered exceptional. Almost a half-century later he still receives accolades. In 2003, Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the 2004 Science Spectrum conference recognized him as the top 50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science. Most notably, in 2012, former President Barrack Obama awarded Carruthers the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Carruthers' work continues as foundational reference for present-day research.

The awe-inspiring images of the ultraviolet Earth that astronauts captured on Apollo 16 depict dynamical changes in the ionopshere that are an on-going subject of research for the scientific community, said Dr. Scott Budzien, NRL's Space Science Division.

Examples of Carruthers' influence work can be found in NRL experiments, Limb-Imaging Ionospheric and Thermospheric Extreme Ultraviolet (UV) Spectrograph (LITES), and Global Positioning System (GPS) Radio Occultation and Ultraviolet Photometer Co-located (GROUP-C), which successfully launched to the International Space Station Feb 19.

A key measurement objective of GROUP-C and LITES is to make tomographic observations of ionospheric structures called plasma bubbles, which were imaged by Carruthers' camera on the Advanced Research and Global Observations Satellite (ARGOS) in 1999, said Budzien. The ultraviolet detector technology used in LITES can trace its heritage back to ultraviolet imaging detectors developed by Dr. George Carruthers for his lunar camera.
Carruthers recently retired from NRL after decades of dedicated service. Carruthers' legacy of research and innovation continues through the revolutionary work at NRL, and all missions exploring space, the final frontier.

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