Cincinnati-Born Physicist George Carruthers Sent His Dreams to the Moon

The pioneering scientist, who died recently, included his astronomical camera on a NASA Moon mission in 1972. It’s still there today.

On the Moon is a monument to a Cincinnati-born scientist. The memorial is not terribly large, but it’s covered in gold. The Lunar Surface Ultraviolet Camera is the only astronomical observatory located on the Moon, and it was designed by George R. Carruthers.

Cincinnati-born physicist George Carruthers (right) and his colleague William Conway examine the Lunar Surface Ultraviolet Camera designed by Carruthers for the Apollo 16 lunar mission. The camera—the only astronomical observatory installed on the Moon—remains on the lunar surface.

Image courtesy of NASA

George was born in 1939 as the oldest of Sophia and George Carruthers’ four children. The family lived in an apartment on Gilbert Avenue in Evanston. The senior George was a civil engineer employed by the Army Corps of Engineers during the early days of local remediation after the Great Flood of 1937. He encouraged his son’s interest in astronomy and space flight. George read a lot of science fiction, built his own telescope when he was just 10 years old and, with his father, built and launched model rockets. In 1999, he reminisced during a NASA oral history interview:

“Well, my interest in space science and astronomy came about by reading science fiction comic books when I was about nine years old, and then after that I became interested in astronomy because I came across some books on the subject. Of course, that was long before there was a space program, so people weren’t really overly enthusiastic, including my relatives, about my interest in astronomy. They thought I should pursue something more practical, such as engineering, because my father was an engineer, but he also gave me an interest in technology as well.”

Early in his childhood, Carruthers’ family moved to Milford, which offered astronomical vistas unhampered by Cincinnati’s urban lights, but with diminished access to science fiction magazines. When George was just 12 years old, his father died and his mother moved the family nearer to her relatives on the south side of Chicago.

Carruthers’ interest in astronomy and space flight flourished in the big city. He joined a model rocketry club, earned multiple prizes in high school science fairs—including first prize for a telescope he designed and built—and was a regular visitor to the Adler Planetarium. Even in high school, he saw enormous potential for astronomical observation from outer space, but the astronomers at the planetarium poo-pooed the idea. As Carruthers told his NASA interviewer:

“Just prior to that, the famous issues of Collier’s magazine, featuring Dr. Werner von Braun and others who were proposing space flight for the first time, human space flight, like space stations, and Fred Whipple had proposed using space as a base for astronomy. But when I talked to the astronomers at the Adler Planetarium, they 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.’”

A big fan of Werner von Braun and his theories, Carruthers wrote the senior scientist a letter and received a reply, along with an autographed photo that he treasured.

Carruthers pursued his dreams into college at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s in nuclear engineering, and his doctorate in astronautical engineering, all before he was 25 years old. As an African American, Carruthers was in a distinct minority as an engineering student, but said he faced few barriers in his education:

“I don’t think that I really had any overt obstacles in my college education. Of course, African Americans were like 1 percent of the engineering students there, so we were relatively rare, but I never saw any instances of discrimination that prevented me from doing whatever I wanted to do there, on the part of either professors or other students.”

While still a student, Carruthers returned to Cincinnati at the invitation of the Urban League to give the keynote address at a career conference for high school students. After earning his Ph.D., he accepted a post-doctoral fellowship to the Naval Research Laboratory, a facility funded by the National Science Foundation, and led a research team there for 38 years.

Carruthers developed an interest in the optics of ultraviolet light. By designing telescopes and detection instruments, he collected data that confirmed the presence of molecular hydrogen in outer space and provided a deeper understanding of Earth’s atmosphere, especially how radiation interacts with the atmosphere to affect communication systems.

For his work on the Apollo 16 mission, for which he created the Lunar Surface Ultraviolet Camera, Carruthers was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Science Achievement Medal. He went on to provide instruments for Space Shuttle and Skylab missions, as well as the ARGOS (Advanced Research and Global Observation Satellite) satellite.

Carruthers was among the founders of the Science & Engineers Apprentice Program, which offered high school students the opportunity to work alongside scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory. He was involved with efforts to promote science education in the Washington, D.C. area.

After retirement in 2002, Carruthers was honored as a Distinguished Lecturer at the Office of Naval Research and, in 2012, was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. President Barack Obama personally conferred the medal during a White House ceremony.

George R. Carruthers died on December 26, 2020 after a long illness. Although not operational any longer, his Lunar Surface Ultraviolet Camera remains in place on the Moon’s Descartes Highlands.

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