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NASA scientist Charles Schnetzler

Matt Schudel

Charles C. Schnetzler, who died Dec. 15, was a scientist at NASA's Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. As a longtime scientist for a federal agency, he wasn't known to the public at all, but he was held in the utmost respect by the remarkable team of scientists he worked with -- and helped assemble.

Jim Garvin, NASA's chief scientist, described Dr. Schnetzler as a "catalyst" who "put people to gether to work on problems. That was his hallmark."

Dr. Schnetzler analyzed moon rocks, studied the magnetic fields of the earth, explored craters left by asteroids (including the world's largest crater in the former Soviet Union) and solved the mystery of tektites, mysterious glasslike stones with no crystal structure. He was also one of the first scientists in the new field of "remote sensing," or the study of the Earth by using satellite technolgy.

People had been taking pictures of the Earth from the air for quite some time, but Dr. Schnetzler was among the scientists who figured out how to make scientific sense of those pictures, how to repeat them in a systematic manner that would show changes in the Earth's environment. This was a huge breakthrough that has had implications for the study of global warming and many other environmental problems affecting the world.

When most people think of NASA, they probably think of astronauts and the space program. But the Goddard Space Flight Center, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in Greenbelt, is a remarkable place that gets too little attention. For a comprehensive view of the center, with plenty of historical photographs, check out Lane E. Wallace's wonderful history of the Goddard Center. Some of the top space scientists in the world work at Goddard, usually in anonymity, but many of their developments have come to be widely applied in science and in the world at large.

Here's a passage from Wallace's book illustrating the flair and originality of the Goddard scientists:
"In this environment of experimentation with regard to equipment as well as cosmic phenomena, Goddard scientists and engineers were constantly inventing new instruments, systems, and components, and they often had to fly something to see if it would really work. This talent for innovation became one of the strengths of Goddard, leading to the development of everything from an artificial sun to help test satellites to modular and servicable spacecraft, to solid state recorder technology and microchip technology for space applications."

As Garvin, the chief scientist told me, "We have so many heroes at NASA. You see them -- they fly. But we have so many behind-the-scenes ones, as well. Charlie was one of them."

By Matt Schudel  |  January 14, 2010; 3:21 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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