Bruce Murray

Bruce Murray, a director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge from 1976 to 1982, passed away last week at 81. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech / September 2, 2013)

Flags at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge were lowered to half staff last week as the NASA center honored former JPL director Bruce C. Murray, who passed away at 81.

Murray died on Thursday, Aug. 29 at his home in Oceanside after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

He was director of the lab from 1976 to 1982. During his watch, he saw Voyager 1 and 2 launch to explore Jupiter and Saturn, and Viking land on Mars. He was also a scientist on the first Mars missions — Mariner 3 and 4. After he left JPL, Murray became a professor of planetary science and geology at Caltech in Pasadena.

When planetary funding got tight at NASA, Murray founded the Planetary Society with astronomer Carl Sagan and engineer Louis Friedman. The Pasadena-based nonprofit promotes space exploration and education. Bill Nye “the Science Guy” is the organization’s current chief executive officer.

Friedman last week remembered Murray’s contributions to planetary science, including the push to take photographs of other planets, which he said was a controversial idea at the time.

“He had an enormous influence on planetary exploration,” said Friedman, “making us understand the planets are different worlds.”

Photographs of other planets have since captured the public’s imagination. Murray’s efforts helped create a public appetite for planetary exploration at a time when NASA was mulling whether it should ax the division, said Friedman.

Murray went on to become the first planetary science professor at Caltech.

“He had an enormous effect on that program and the students passing through that program,” said Dave Stevenson, a planetary science professor at Caltech. “As a consequence, students who took his class and did research with him went on to prominent positions [in planetary science] all over the country.”

Stevenson began working with Murray in 1980. “It is in some respects the passing of an era. He was one of the earliest people working in planetary science,” he said.

“He will be greatly missed,” he added.

JPL officials remembered Murray in a statement last week.

“He worked tirelessly to save our nation’s planetary exploration capability at a tumultuous time when there was serious consideration for curtailing future missions,” JPL Director Charles Elachi said in a statement, adding that he continued to rally for space exploration even after joining Caltech.

Before getting involved with Caltech and JPL, Murray earned a Ph.D. in geology from MIT and worked as a geologist for Standard Oil. He also served in the U.S. Air Force for two years.

Murray is survived by his wife, Suzanne Moss, five children and 10 grandchildren.

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Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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