Remembering Robert Willard Farquhar

Posted on Sat, November 21, 2015

Robert Willard Farquhar Mission Designer, Flight Director, Deep-Space Navigator

Robert Willard Farquhar

Robert W. Farquhar and James L. Green at a 2010 symposium commemorating 25 years of comet discoveries.

Known for devising innovative and intricate spacecraft trajectories, and for his whole-hearted dedication to robotic space exploration, Robert “Bob” Farquhar left a strong impression on the American space program. His career in aerospace began in the late 1950s, at the dawn of the age of interplanetary exploration, and his navigational skills shaped many of America’s deep-space “firsts” during the Space Race and beyond. His work at NASA and at the Applied Physics Laboratory included missions to the planets, comets, and asteroids. His colleagues described his missions as equal parts engineering feats and works of art.

Farquhar’s success at diverting the course of a spacecraft that had accomplished its primary mission and setting it on a new trajectory to accomplish more science, combined with his unwavering persistence, earned him the labels “hacker” and “space cowboy.” In 1978 he helped place the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) at a stable orbital position between the Earth and Sun (libration point L1) to monitor and study space weather, the first spacecraft ever put into such an orbit. In 1982 he sent the ISEE-3 on a second mission. Renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), its new trajectory sent it through the tail of comet Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and the tail of Halley’s Comet in 1986. Farquhar also served as flight director of the 1996 Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission, which studied asteroid 433 Eros. He advocated for a mission to Pluto and was mission designer on the recent New Horizons mission to the Kuiper Belt.

While writing his memoir, Fifty Years on the Space Frontier, Farquhar served as the 2007–2008 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Museum. He shared the 2001 National Air and Space Museum Trophy Award for Current Achievement with his fellow members of the NEAR Mission Team.

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