Richard M. Goldstein, Who Helped Map the Cosmos, Dies at 97

Richard M. Goldstein, Who Helped Map the Cosmos, Dies at 97

Richard M. Goldstein, a trailblazer in planetary exploration who used ground-based radars to map planets with techniques that scientists now use to measure geographical changes on Earth, including melting glaciers, died on June 22 at his home in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif. He was 97.

His daughter, Rabbi Lisa L. Goldstein, confirmed the death.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Goldstein was a graduate student in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and working part time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory when he proposed, as his thesis topic, trying to detect echoes from Venus using the Goldstone Solar System Radar, which had been newly developed by the space agency.

If successful, scientists would learn the distance from Earth to Venus, essentially laying the foundation to map the entire solar system. His adviser at Caltech was more than skeptical; Venus, in NASA’s description, was a “cloud-swaddled” planet covered by thick gasses, and previous attempts to reach the planet using other radars had produced mixed results.

“No echo, no thesis,” Dr. Goldstein’s adviser told him, according to “To See the Unseen: A History of Planetary Radar Astronomy” (1996) by Andrew J. Butrica, a science historian.

He proceeded anyway. On March 10, 1961, technicians pointed the new radar at Venus. Six and a half minutes later, signals from Venus returned. Dr. Goldstein had proved his adviser wrong. He soon bounced signals off Mercury and Mars, as well as Saturn’s rings.

The study’s influence on solar system research was immense.

“The measurements he did of the distance to Venus made it possible to do accurate navigation within the solar system,” said Charles Werner, a former senior engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If you know one distance, it’s like a ruler that allows you to calibrate everything else and to be able to navigate spacecraft in the solar system accurately.”

Dr. Goldstein in an undated photograph. His measurements of the distance to Venus from Earth helped scientists to map out the entire solar system.Credit…NASA

The radar echoes were the celestial prelude to a long career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory charting the previously unseen. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Dr. Goldstein used radar interferometry — the splicing together of multiple radar signals over a period of time — to map the surface of Venus.

“High-resolution radar probes have broken through the thick clouds of Venus and for the first time distinguished features on the planet’s surface, which presents a landscape of huge, shallow craters,” John Noble Wilford, a science reporter, wrote in a front-page article published in The New York Times on Aug. 5, 1973.

“Instead of the blurry shadings of earlier radar maps of the planet,” Mr. Wilford wrote, the images detected by Dr. Goldstein revealed a dozen craters, including one that was 100 miles wide and less than a quarter of a mile deep.

Dr. Goldstein had used two radar antennas 14 miles apart to produce the images.

“This, in effect, gives us stereo reception,” Dr. Goldstein said, “and enabled to pinpoint each area touched on Venus. We were able to see depths better.”

He later adapted his radar algorithms for use with aircraft and satellites, which have mapped melting glaciers, the movement of tectonic plates and other changes to the Earth’s surface.

“From a civil earth remote-sensing perspective, he was absolutely the pioneer,” said Paul A. Rosen, a project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Richard Morris Goldstein was born on April 11, 1927, in Indianapolis. His father, Samuel, was an owner of the Goldstein Brothers department store. His mother, Dorothy (Drozdowitz) Goldstein, managed the household.

After graduating from Purdue in 1947 with a degree in electrical engineering, Dr. Goldstein joined the family business and worked in the lamp department.

“I have a record of selling the most three-way lightbulbs in Indianapolis,” he joked in an oral history interview with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Eleven years later, Dr. Goldstein moved to California for graduate school and landed a low-level job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked for 43 years, and retired as a section leader. (He finished his doctorate at Caltech in 1963.)

“He broke every problem down into its fundamentals,” Mr. Rosen said. “He went about his work quietly. He was not big on telling the world how great he was.”

Dr. Goldstein married Ruth Lowenstam in 1964. She survives him, along with their daughter, Lisa; their sons Samuel and Joshua; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His brother, Samuel Goldstein Jr., an astronomer, predeceased him.

During his time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and even after he retired, Dr. Goldstein was an enthusiastic competitor in the organization’s annual invention challenge, in which participants try to solve quirky problems such as creating “a device that can put up to 10 Ping-Pong balls into a Mason jar located five meters away within the one-minute time allotment.”

“I would say he probably won at least a third of the time,” his daughter said. “He loved these contests. He was obsessed with figuring out the solution.”

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