George Carruthers

George Carruthers is an astrophysicist and award-winning inventor. He created the spectrograph, the ultraviolet camera used by NASA in the 1972 Apollo 16 flight. It is because of Carruthers that we learned that hydrogen is the predominant element in the universe.

Carruthers, the oldest of four children, was born in 1939 in Cincinnati, OH. In 1947, the family moved to a farm near Milford, about fifteen miles from downtown Cincinnati, which at the time was quite rural. His father was a civil engineer with the US Army Air Corps, and encouraged his interest in science. At age 10, he worked as a delivery boy and used his money for cardboard tubing and lenses with which he built his first telescope. His father died when he was 12, and his mother moved the family to her hometown of Chicago. While he still showed that he had a proclivity for science, winning several science fairs and building model rockets, he performed poorly in school (likely due to his father’s death.)

“My interest in science and technology came about first through science fiction. When I was about eight or nine years old, I got a Buck Rogers comic book from my grandmother, and that was, of course, long before there was any such thing as a space program.” – George Carruthers

Carruthers attended the University of Illinois where he received a BS in aeronautical engineering in 1961, an MS in nuclear engineering in 1962, and a PhD in aeronautical and astronomical engineering in 1964. While conducting his graduate studies, Carruthers worked as a research and teaching assistant studying plasma and gases. One of his first graduate school projects was to experiment with a plasma rocket engine (of which he built a working model) and he began analyzing one of the major problems of space flight – the super-hot gases that are formed by the friction between the skin of the spacecraft and atmospheric gases which can cause major damage to the spacecraft.

After his doctoral studies, he worked at the US Naval Research Laboratory as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow, focusing on far ultraviolet astronomy. Two years later, in 1966, he began work at the E.O. Hurlburt Center for Space Research at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC as a full-time research physicist.

Carruthers excelled at developing new instrumentation, often as Principal Investigator for research projects. In 1969, the US Patent office gave him credit for inventing the “Image Converter” – an instrument that detects electromagnetic radiation in short wave lengths. In 1970, his invention recorded the first observation of molecular hydrogen (the simplest, lightest, and smallest atom) in outer space, during the Aerobee-150 rocket launch from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. This confirmed that hydrogen is the predominant element in the universe; this discovery led to what is now accepted as common knowledge – that hydrogen plays a very significant role in the birth of stars.

In 1972, Carruthers invented the first moon-based observatory: the far ultraviolet camera, or the spectrograph. UV light is the electromagnetic radiation between visible light and x-rays; it cannot be seen by the human eye. The spectrograph uses a prism to show the spectrum of light produced by an element. This device was used in the Apollo 16 mission, capturing 178 frames of film, allowing researchers to examine the Earth’s atmosphere, the polar auroris, the solar wind, various nebulae, the Milky Way, galactic clusters, the lunar atmosphere, and other galactic objects. That camera still sits on the moon, in the shadow of the lunar module Orion.


Photo of a partially-lit Earth captured by the Far Ultraviolet Camera on Apollo 16.

“The most immediately obvious and spectacular results were really for the Earth observations, because this was the first time that the Earth had been photographed from a distance in ultraviolet light, so that you could see the full extent of the hydrogen atmosphere, the polar auroris, and what we call the tropical airglow belt.”
— Dr. George Carruthers

In 1986, one of Carruthers’ inventions captured an ultraviolet image of Halley’s Comet. And, one of his cameras was used on the Air Force ARGOS mission to capture an image of a Leonid shower meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere. This was the first time a meteor had been imaged in the far ultraviolet from a space-borne camera.

In an effort to inspire an interest in careers in science (especially among black youth), Carruthers’ career has included many education initiatives. He spent a year teaching astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University. He was a member of two independent scientific review committees for the Hubble Space Telescope Project. He was involved in the creation of Science & Engineering Apprentice Program, which lets high school students work with scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory. He has been a member of Science, Mathematics, Aerospace, Research, and Technology (SMART), Inc. since 1990 . Project SMART encourages black teachers and students to pursue science and technology through training workshops. For two summers in the 1990s, he taught a course in Earth and Space Science for science teachers in the the D.C. public schools. He helped develop a series of videos on Earth and Space science for high-school students. He chaired the editorial review committee and edited the journal of the National Technical Association, which provides high school and college students with scientific and technical information and career profiles and biographical sketches of prominent African American scientists and engineers. Since 2002, he has been teaching a course on Earth and Space Science at Howard University, funded by NASA. And, Carruthers has been a part of the Smithsonian Institution Lemelson Center’s “Innovative Lives” series, where he discussed being a real-life rocket scientist with middle-school students.

Carruthers has received many distinguished awards:

  • The Arthur S. Flemming Award (1970)
  • NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal (1972)
  • The Warner Prize of the American Astronomical Society (1973)
  • Exceptional Achievement Award from the National Civil Service League (1973)
  • Honorary Doctor of Engineering, Michigan Technological University (1973)
  • Samuel Cheevers Award from the National Technical Association (1977)
  • The Black Engineer of the Year Award (1987)
  • Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (2003)
  • The National Medal of Technology and Innovation for 2012 by President Barack Obama (the nation’s highest honor for technology achievement)

Sources: Wiki, Biography, The History Makers, Black Past, Thought Co., Encyclopedia, American Institute of Physics Oral History (interview), NASA, Lunar Planetary Institute

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