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Fred Wilshusen, rocket pioneer, has died at the age of 84

March 15, 2007

Fred Wilshusen, rocket pioneer, died today at the age of 84. Born in 1925 in Boulder, Colorado, Fred served in the Navy as a radar technician, patrolling the pacific coast for Japanese submarines in torpedo bombers, during WWII. After the war, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He joined the fledgling Upper Air Laboratory at CU as a graduate student in 1956. When lead technical engineers and scientists left the Upper Air Laboratory to form Ball Aerospace, Fred ended his graduate career early to become the Lab’s Director of Operations.

Through the early history of the Upper Air Laboratory, Fred made significant contributions to the stability of the program, securing funding from NRL and AFGL. Fred served as the Director of Operations for what ultimately became the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics for more than two decades. He directed much of the technical efforts for LASP’s early space missions, including OSO, OGO, and the Mariner missions, as well as the engineering efforts for more than 150 sounding rockets and balloon payloads. He was the principal engineer in the development of the Bi-axial pointing systems developed by LASP (in conjunction with NRL and AFGL) in the late 1950′s and 1960′s, the first reliable pointing system ever developed. He was a primary contributor to the technologies that led to LASP’s first EUV and XRay measurements of the sun. Fred participated in the development of the original SPARCS systems (Solar Pointing Aerobee Rocket Control System) in the early 1960′s. These systems were used to point and control the entire rocket payload, once separated from the motor, as opposed to just pointing the instrument. The SPARCS system has been and continues to be the workhorse for NASA’s solar pointed sounding rocket missions to this day.

Fred retired from LASP in 1987. He continued to support the University of Colorado’s students programs, including CSOAR and the Student Nitric Oxide Explorer through the mid-1990′s.

Fred’s service will be at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday 5/19/07 at the Estes Valley Memorial Gardens 1672 Fish Hatchery Road, Estes Park, CO 80517.


I remember Fred as a gentle and friendly man, always willing to help and talk through issues. He was certainly one of the persons who helped to build LASP’s good reputation in the early days. Thanks, Fred.

— Dave Rusch, May 18, 12:06 PM

When I first started at LASP in 1965 I was working with the rocket group producing the rocket log book plots of rocket and instrument performance from the analog strip charts made at launch. Fred had a bowling ball and plastic protractor by which we determined where the instrument was pointing during the flight. When I came down with the flu one summer, they brought that bowling ball over to Wardenberg Hospital so I could calculate the pointing from my hospital bed. The last time I asked, Fred still had that bowling ball! We laughed and laughed over that ball. But it worked; Fred had a way of making things work, and always smiling about it too. He made a difference in my life. I’ll miss him.

— Karen Simmons, May 18, 01:42 PM

Fred was there in the beginning of research rockets for CU in the late 1940s, and he was also there for the latest LASP rocket. Fred and his family were able to visit White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) during our rocket integration and launch last October for NASA 36.233 (TIMED SEE calibration rocket). He logged a many hours at White Sands along with many fine adventures there.

Fred contributed so much to LASP, the national rocket program, and NASA in general. We are all so proud of what he has accomplished and done for our laboratory. Thanks Fred!

— Tom Woods, May 18, 02:32 PM

Perhaps because it housed the lab coffee pot, the social center of the old LASP engineering building on 55th Street in Boulder was the instrument shop. Fred came through the shop (and visited the coffee pot) every morning on the way to his office. He did not simply walk into the shop; he always made an entrance, pausing just inside the doorway to sing out a brief, cheery yodel. It was a moment of morning cheer for everyone within earshot, and I miss it.

— Mark Lankton, May 18, 03:36 PM

When I first started designing systems to control mirrors and point them at things, stars and planets, I started from scratch. Fred’s notebooks, dating back to his days with the development of the biaxial pointing system, and Fred’s mentoring were invaluable resources that helped teach me the things I needed to learn.

In general I learned so much about the engineering we do from long discussions with Fred.

Thanks Fred, I have always and will always appreciate all of your help.

— Jim Westfall, May 18, 07:33 PM

Fred was smart, funny, tough, and very proud. He was an engineer’s engineer. I’ve never before or since seen a more versatile, seat of the pants engineer. I learned a great deal from Fred, as did many, many others.

Thanks Fred, you taught so many what it means to be a fine engineer.

— Alan Stern, May 19, 08:03 AM

I went with Fred to Fort Churchill in 1969. It was the worst Airplane flight of my life with too many bumps. Fred taught me how to be brave -focus on the rocket shot for science and drink scotch.

— Joe Ajello, May 30, 08:15 PM

Rest in peace, Fred.