George Robert Carruthers (October 1, 1939–December 26, 2020) was an African-American inventor, physicist, engineer, and space scientist. Although a brilliant man with multiple scientific accomplishments, his academic success was not immediate. Carruthers is most well-known for his contributions to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Apollo 16 mission.
1. Carruthers perfected a compact, powerful ultraviolet camera/spectrograph for NASA to use when launching Apollo 16 in 1972.
He designed it for astronauts to use on the lunar surface, ensuring they could make adjustments in their bulky spacesuits. Following instructions from Carruthers, they used the camera to record the Earth's outermost atmosphere, noting its variations and mapping portions of the far-ultraviolet sky, recording stars and galaxies as well as the gaseous media between them.
In April 1972, the Apollo 16 astronauts placed the telescope on the Moon where it still sits today—the Descartes highland region, in the shadow of the Orion lunar module. When remarking on the instrument's findings, Carruthers said, "the most immediately obvious and spectacular results were really the Earth observations, because this was the first time Earth had been photographed from a distance in ultraviolet (UV) light so that you could see the full extent of the hydrogen atmosphere, the polar auroris, and what we call the tropical airglow belt."
2. From an early age, Carruthers loved reading popular space fiction and the Collier's series on space flight from the 1950s.
From about the age of nine, he was reading science-fiction comic books and became intrested in astronomy. This was long before any formal space program and even his family encouraged him to pursue other interests. While living in Millford, Ohio as a youth, he came to know the astonomers at Adler Planetarium. His grades were not great in elementary school, but while there he won awards at three different science fairs.
Just prior to that, the famous issues of Collier's magazine, featuring Dr. Wernher von Braun and others proposed space flight for the first time, human space flight, like space stations, and Fred [Lawrence] Whipple proposed space as a base for astronomy. Carruthers in an interview stated that even at that point, the astronomers at the Adler Planetarium, said, "Well, you know, that's fantasy. That's science fiction. Ground-based astronomy is really the thing that we do, and we think that there's no advantage in going out into space." Carruthers pressed on.
3. At 10, Carruthers built his first telescope.
He built the telescope out of cardboard tubing and used wages earned as a delivery boy to purchased the mail-order lenses himself.
4. In 1986, one of Carruthers' inventions captured an ultraviolet image of Halley's Comet.
He also developed a camera in 1991 that benefitted a Space Shuttle mission.
5. In 2003, Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame and later received the 2012 National Medal for Technology and Invention from President Barack Obama.
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