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Rocket man

A high-achieving scientist with a troubled personal life, Henry Richter found a faith that transformed him


Rocket man
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Henry Richter heard it first—a thunderous roar as the long, white rocket lifted up, up, up into the night sky, interrupting the darkness with flares and flashes. Moments later, Explorer 1, the first earth satellite of the United States, was successfully in orbit.

It was Jan. 31, 1958, at 10:48 p.m. in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Richter, then a lanky 30-year-old, was sitting in the control room, watching history happen through green-tinted, bulletproof glass. As project manager at the then-obscure Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., he and his team helped develop Explorer 1 and choose its scientific instrumentation, which led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt.

That night at the launch area, Richter’s job was to update the Pentagon via teletype. In the Pentagon’s war room paced an anxious group of three scientists, the Army secretary, and the Army vice chief of staff. President Eisenhower was on a golfing trip in Georgia, his evening of bridge forgotten as he stuck close to the telephone for news.

So it was with great excitement that Richter waited for the first telltale singsongy tones from the satellite’s signal as it passed California. But at the expected arrival time, he heard nothing. “We were just waiting ... chewing our fingernails,” said the 88-year-old Richter, 58 years later. “And then one … two … three … four … five … six … seven … eight minutes—and we had it! We had a very nervous eight minutes when it was supposed to show up but was late.” Eisenhower, too, breathed a sigh of relief: “That’s wonderful. I sure feel a lot better now.”

Miles north in rainy Washington, D.C., journalists packed into the auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences. There, the three key developers of Explorer 1 spontaneously lifted a model of the satellite over their heads—a moment captured as one of the most iconic photographs of the Space Age. As for Richter, he was so “numb” from all the tension and frenetic activities leading up to that pinnacle that he barely remembers returning to his motel.

It was a glorious day for America, but not a victory. That laurel went to the Soviet Union, which launched Sputnik, the first-ever man-made satellite to circle the earth. Sputnik spun into orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, then Sputnik 2 a month later, this time carrying a female mongrel named Laika. Aghast at this public gauntlet-tossing from its Cold War enemy, the United States plunged into the space race.

But insiders like Richter knew Explorer 1 had been ready to launch more than a year before Sputnik. So despite celebrating the success of Explorer 1, Richter also felt regrets: “We could have been first.”

Richter lived through a politically charged, boundary-pushing era of scientific accomplishments. He witnessed the creation of NASA. He watched JPL transform from a little-known group in a barrackslike structure developing missiles for the Army into a prestigious NASA-affiliated agency working on spacecraft in a top-notch facility. He helped develop the Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor spacecraft and send Apollo to the moon. He managed the planning for JPL’s Deep Space Network, a worldwide network of deep-space communication facilities that still track spacecraft today.

Yet, yesterday’s success was never enough. As the two superpowers raced for global superiority, so too was Richter charging to show the world that he was somebody great. He calls himself a “proverbial workaholic” and an “absentee father” during his younger years, at one point commuting twice a week between JPL and the Pentagon. In 1960, Richter left JPL, disgusted by the federal government’s constant interference. His other career ventures also left him disappointed and unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, his family was falling apart: His first wife, Marilyn, frequently broke down into all-night weeping episodes, terrified that she was condemned to hell. The doctors later diagnosed her with schizoid personality disorder, but Richter also blamed her religion and resolved always to avoid those “kooky born-again-type Christians.” After 22 years of unhappy marriage, Richter divorced his wife, leaving him alone with five teenagers. By then, he was ready to confess that Henry Richter was a false idol.

The 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 in 2008 was supposed to be the capstone of Richter’s career. As one of the only surviving managers of the Explorer 1 team, he was the star of the three-day fanfare in Pasadena. Later, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics invited him to its annual black-tie awards ceremony, where he joined other former JPL directors onstage to receive the Achievement Award. But throughout that flurry of celebration and honor, his heart was heavy. His second son, David, a retired Pasadena police lieutenant, was missing. Months later, someone found David’s body under a bridge. Apparently, he had shot himself.

Richter is a stoic man who states the facts and little else, but his second and current wife, Beverly, told me that was the lowest period of his life. She said only faith—which Richter by then had—brought them through it: “We were very precise in our prayers. We believed in God of our hope. We knew that our God is able to sustain us and carry us through.”

HENRY L. RICHTER was born on June 14, 1927, in Long Beach, Calif. Both of his parents were painters who met in Chicago—he an instructor, she a student. They married, moved west to warmer pastures, and taught art at a local high school. Richter remembers his father taking him along on sketching trips to the mountains and deserts. While Henry Sr. drew, Henry Jr. prowled around experimenting on rocks.

Richter’s fascination with science began in third grade, when his aunt gave him a Gilbert chemistry set. From then on, he mowed lawns and did odd jobs to spiff up his chemistry tools, which grew into a breakfast- room-turned-laboratory stacked with 100 different chemicals and various glassware. In fifth grade, Richter took a summer high-school chemistry course. The next year, he became a lab assistant in that chemistry class, an earnest squirt among high-schoolers who shaved. The local newspaper did a feature on him titled “Ambitious Local Lad.”

And ambitious, he was. After a short stint serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Richter married pretty, curly-haired Marilyn and earned a B.S. and Ph.D. in chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. He entered his first job at JPL as a senior research engineer and within four months rose to chief of the satellite development team.

It was a horrifying day for Americans when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik, but a much-awaited opportunity for Richter. While he was holed up in an office basement, tracking the audio from Sputnik on reel-to-reel recorders, the American public was panicking: What’s that beeping thing above our heads? What kind of crazy, new-tech Soviet weapon is next? Every major newspaper featured Sputnik, and nothing Eisenhower said could assuage public apprehension.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy had been preparing a satellite program called Project Vanguard, even though the Army/JPL already had a rocket system ready by then. In 1955, the two military branches vied for the honor of sending America’s first satellite into space. Ultimately, politics pushed Washington to bet on Vanguard: The Army’s rocket derived from a ballistic missile designed by Wernher von Braun, a controversial ex-Nazi German engineer, whereas the Navy’s Vanguard would create fresh rockets intended for peaceful science. Eisenhower wanted America’s first satellite to appear civilian, not militaristic.

FOLLOWING SPUTNIK, Washington hustled Vanguard to conduct its first satellite launch months ahead of schedule. Then on Dec. 6, 1957, the Navy’s rocket exploded into smoke and fire mere seconds after its launch. “Kaputnik,” “Puffnik,” and “Flopnik” were among the labels in newspapers comparing the Vanguard satellite to Sputnik. Richter felt embarrassed for his country, but also cheered, “Whoopee! Now’s our chance!” Nearly two months later, Explorer 1 redeemed America’s dignity with its successful launch.

After that, Richter wore the attire of a man who had made it. The house he built in western Pasadena expanded to a three-story “Spanish castle.” After JPL he became vice president of a high-tech research company, then a senior research geophysicist at UCLA, then headed his own electronics manufacturing business that eventually flopped. He also began dating his former secretary, Beverly Ott.

Beverly was a small-town girl from Nebraska who graduated from Biola University. A 44-year-old single mother of three, she struggled to make ends meet ever since her first husband, a pastor, abandoned his family for a woman who sang in the church choir. Richter knew her story, which was why the bright-faced, ocean-eyed woman so impressed him: “There was just something very peaceful about her life. And then I found out she’s one of those strange creatures who call themselves ‘Christians.’”

For years, Richter was a model cultural Christian. He was chairman of the official board at a Methodist church, but considered the gospel “a bunch of nonsense.” He attended church simply because it boosted his reputation as a respectable American.

But Beverly was different. This woman, who had every right to be bitter, instead talked joyfully about “a true God who loves and sustains us.” His curiosity piqued, Richter blew dust from his Bible—and for the first time in his life, the living, breathing Word spoke to him.

Then one day, while driving to work, Richter suddenly felt an “overwhelming presence of Jesus.” He cried out, “Lord, if You want me, I want You.” That was Oct. 4, 1969. The same evening, Beverly dragged him to a Billy Graham Crusade at Anaheim Stadium. When Graham made the altar call, Richter jumped to his feet and sprinted down the field to profess faith in Christ. “I just knew that my life was changed at that moment,” Richter recalled. “I was washed clean.”

So when Richter proposed to Beverly, she said yes. Even so, she had concerns, thinking, “I hope, I hope, I hope this guy is a true Christian.” Forty-six years later, the ivory-haired Mrs. Richter told me, “I took a risk, and it worked out wonderful for 46 years.” She then placed a wrinkled, soft hand over her husband’s own mottled one, and the couple exchanged a beam.

Today Richter, 88, and his wife, 90, live in a residential community for seniors in Escondido, Calif. His father’s paintings adorn their modest one-story home, including an oil painting of a 7-year-old Henry in overalls, button nose buried in a giant book. Scientific journals and papers cover the coffee table and office desk. Among them is his latest book project on why the universe is too marvelous to be a cosmological accident.

Richter, now a young-earth creationist, said the more he studied science, the more he questioned the Darwinist teachings he had once accepted. His involvement with NASA and the Institute for Creation Research further clinched his conviction in a perfect, wise Creator who fine-tuned creation. Mere fascination lifted into awe. Hunger for self-credit crumbled into gratitude and humility as he realized: “I’m not the center of the universe. It’s not important for me to prove that I’m a success anymore. There’s greater things in life to do.”

Those greater things include roasting chicken and crimping dough to make Mom’s cherry pie for his wife. He also prays for the souls of his three remaining children (the oldest son died of a heart attack), 11 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. He grieves that only a few profess Christ, but rejoices in the ones who do. His last breath, he says, would be to “tell my children how my life has changed by meeting Jesus.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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