William G. Fastie, 83, Hopkins astrophysicist designed spectrometer

July 17, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

William G. Fastie, a pre-eminent astrophysicist who helped start the Johns Hopkins University space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, died Friday of pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 83 and lived in Green Spring Valley.

Mr. Fastie, called "the father of the Hopkins space program," is best known for designing a spectrometer - an instrument for measuring the spectrum of light - rugged enough to withstand a rocket launch. His invention, made public in 1952, later helped scientists gather information about other planets at the dawn of the Space Age.

That invention, along with his other work, helped propel Hopkins into the field of space research, said Paul Feldman, chairman of the Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy.

"He was a great influence," said Mr. Feldman, who came to Hopkins at age 28 and considered Mr. Fastie a mentor. "He was a tall man, he was a giant, with a wry smile and a twinkle in his eye all the time, and he convinced you that anything was possible and he knew how to make these things which seemed impossible work. It was really exciting."

Born Dec. 6, 1916, in a rowhouse near Loudon Park Cemetery in West Baltimore, Mr. Fastie was a poor student at Catonsville High School. But from the time he was a teen-ager, he displayed a flair for physics. In high school, he took a college-level night course in physics sponsored by Hopkins.

He attended Hopkins for a time as an undergraduate after graduating from high school in 1933. In 1937, he got a scholarship to study graduate physics there. He was nearing completion of his doctorate, said his son, William H. Fastie of Towson, when he left in 1946 to work for Leeds and Northrup, a private research laboratory in Philadelphia.

It was in Philadelphia that Mr. Fastie stumbled upon the idea that would make his name familiar to physicists around the world. It seemed simple enough at the time: He discovered a way to improve a spectrometer by using one mirror instead of two.

But, his son said, the improvement turned out to be "a seminal scientific invention." Mr. Fastie had stumbled on the design for a spectrometer that was rugged enough to withstand space travel, long before space travel was a possibility. The device later became a key component of rocket-borne and space telescopes.

He returned to Hopkins in 1951. When he wrote a paper about his device, he discovered it had been invented before, at the turn of the century, by a German inventor named Hermann Ebert, who was criticized for the work. After that, he insisted on calling it the Ebert spectrometer.

In 1957, Mr. Fastie had the idea of sending the Ebert-Fastie spectrometer into space. The idea came to him as he stood with his wife, Frances, watching the world's first satellite, the Soviet Sputnik, pass overhead.

His machine entered space two years later, sent to measure the ultraviolet light of the aurora borealis for the first time.

After that, Fastie-designed spectrometers entered space numerous times. One orbited Mars on a probe for 11 years, starting in 1969, analyzing the light coming from the surface and atmosphere. It perceived a dry river bed, leading scientists to conjecture that there was once water on the surface of Mars. Ebert-Fastie spectrometers also sent back data from Venus and Jupiter.

Mr. Feldman said scientists use more advanced technology now, but Mr. Fastie's invention was a "steppingstone."

"It was ideally suited for what was at the time the cutting edge," Mr. Feldman said.

Later, Mr. Fastie successfully lobbied to have the Space Telescope Science Institute located in Baltimore. His son said that was no small feat. Located across from the Hopkins campus, the institute was established in 1981 as the hub for Hubble Space Telescope research.

"There was fairly fierce competition among universities," his son said. "There were lots of schools that were vying to get the institute. It was a big deal for Hopkins to have gotten it, and my father was involved."

Mr. Feldman said Mr. Fastie later worked on the telescope. He was involved with the project during its early difficulties, when the telescope's main mirror was ground to the wrong shape and produced blurry images. Mr. Feldman said Mr. Fastie held himself responsible for not catching the problem. But Mr. Fastie also helped find the solution to the problem, and today the Hubble Space Telescope continues to send back razor-sharp images from outer space.

Mr. Fastie retired from Hopkins in 1996, but his son said he kept working at home until 2 1/2 years ago, when a stroke left him bedridden. "He was a workaholic," his son said. "He certainly loved what he did."

In 1997, Hopkins awarded him the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters.

Despite the long hours his father worked, the younger Mr. Fastie said, he would always take time out to play pool during his lunch break at Hopkins. He said his father also liked to sail and, in his later years, tended a garden on his property in Green Spring Valley.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, 232 St. Thomas Lane, Owings Mills.

Mr. Feldman said the Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy plans to hold a memorial service when classes resume in the fall.

In addition to his son, Mr. Fastie is survived by another son, Christopher Fastie of Salisbury, Vt.; a daughter, Frances McKenna of Pittsburgh; a sister, Dorothy Fastie of Towson; and four grandchildren.

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