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Bruce Murray
Picture of Bruce Murray
Bruce Murray
(1931 - 2013)
Former Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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Murray and his friend, Carl Sagan, look at a map of Mars. The picture was taken in 1976 in Murray's office while Sagan was living in Pasadena and working on the Viking mission.

Bruce C. Murray, the fifth director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was born in New York City in 1931. He completed a Ph.D. in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955. He then worked as a petroleum geologist for Standard Oil until 1958, then served two years in the U.S. Air Force.

In 1960, Murray came to Caltech, working initially in planetary astronomy. Soon after, he was invited to join the imaging science team for JPL's first two missions to Mars, Mariners 3 and 4. He continued to play this role on Mariners 6, 7 and 9, using their imagery to begin constructing a geologic history for Mars.

Murray played in a key role in the
Viking landings on Mars and the early
missions of Voyager 1 and 2.
Bruce Murray

Murray was a forceful advocate of planetary exploration, but disagreed with the focus of NASA's Viking missions to Mars -- the search for life -- because he saw it as premature. Without an adequate understanding of Martian surface chemistry, he thought, the biological instruments would not be able to provide unambiguous results. In company with his own scientific achievements in the Mariner program, this cogent, and in retrospect accurate, criticism of the high-profile mission helped earn him the JPL directorship when William Pickering retired in April 1976.

Murray's disagreement with NASA over Viking's scientific priorities foreshadowed a difficult tenure as director. He faced a rapidly shrinking budget as NASA's priorities congealed around its space shuttle and its low-Earth-orbit capabilities. As NASA cut back its planetary program, he gained a substantial expansion of JPL's civil affairs program with a large solar energy research project funded by the Department of Energy. This program ended suddenly in 1981, however.

Murray also waged political battles in Washington to save the planetary program -- and JPL. In 1979, Murray, astronomer Carl Sagan and engineer Louis Friedman founded the Planetary Society, a membership-based non-profit organization. One of the society's goals was to expand public advocacy for planetary exploration.

This didn't earn him many friends in NASA Headquarters. He succeeded in salvaging the Galileo mission to Jupiter, but lost the American half of the two-satellite International Solar Polar Mission (eventually launched with JPL instruments as the European Space Agency's Ulysses by Space Shuttle Discovery) and a proposed U.S. mission to Halley's comet. The one bright spot for JPL seemed to be in NASA's astronomy program. Murray brought the American portion of the joint Netherlands/United Kingdom/U.S. Infrared Astronomy Satellite to JPL, and Caltech gained the project's science data center.

NASA deputy administrator Hans Mark told Murray in 1981 that the planetary program was likely to shrink further and advised him to begin pursuing military business again as the only reliable source of funding. So Murray secured the blessings of Caltech's trustees for the re-introduction of classified research to the lab in order to pursue Defense Department programs. He also announced his plans to step down as director in late 1982, returning to Caltech's Geological and Planetary Sciences Department. He retired in 2002.

Last Updated: 29 August 2013


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Last Updated: 29 Aug 2013