James L. Decker

[ Age 83 ] The aeronautical engineer played key roles in the development of the Gemini and Apollo space programs

January 02, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun Reporter

James Ludlow Decker, a retired aeronautical engineer who helped design the Gemini spacecraft and who served as a deputy manager for the Apollo space program in Houston, died Dec. 27 of complications from a stroke at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Baldwin resident was 83.

Born in Batavia, N.Y., Mr. Decker moved to Baltimore after graduating from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1945. He took a job with Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River, where he oversaw the aviation company's aerodynamics staff and preliminary design engineering.

Mr. Decker helped design the Titan intercontinental ballistic missile in the company's Denver division and then returned to Baltimore. As NASA began work on the Gemini program, Mr. Decker led a successful proposal to modify the Titan so that it could be used to launch spacecraft - a significant step in the evolution of the space program.

"Jim was one of their bright ones," said Lester J. Rose of Newport News, Va., who worked for Martin at the same time as Mr. Decker. "In my opinion, at least, Jim Decker from Martin was [one of the] fathers of the Gemini program. They were very instrumental in putting it together."

Mr. Decker was ultimately assigned as the technical director of the Gemini launch vehicle project. He later joined what was then known as the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, where he served as a deputy manager for the Apollo program, overseeing its lunar module project.

In 1948, he married Dorothy Boon, who died in 1990. In 1997, he married Bette Botzler - a longtime friend whom he had met at University Baptist Church in Baltimore, where he was a member.

"He lived in an age when aviation went from its beginnings to when men were going to the moon. He was the kind of person who was pleased that he had done that with his career," said Mrs. Decker. "He was a very sincere person. A lot of integrity, trustworthy. Just a good guy and a good friend."

For about three years he worked for Bell Aerospace in Canada as vice president and general manager of the company's hovercraft program, where he helped design, test and manufacture the Voyageur and Viking vehicles that were later used by the U.S. military.

Mr. Decker retired in 1990, and he returned to the Baltimore area in 1997. He continued to lecture on preliminary aircraft design at Rensselaer. He was a Rensselaer Fellow and was a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington.

Throughout his life, Mr. Decker loved harness racing and often traveled to watch big races. Mr. Rose recalled leaving work with Mr. Decker and hurrying over to a nearby track to catch the final races of the day. Mr. Decker followed other sports as well and was a fan of the Colts when they played in Baltimore.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his stepchildren, Susan E. Marley, Jonathan T. Botzler, Paul W. Botzler and David E. Botzler.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. today at University Baptist Church, 3501 N. Charles St.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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