John T. Mengel, 85; Leader of 1st Space Photo Team
John T. Mengel, an electronics pioneer whose team took the first space photograph and who later became one of NASA’s first employees, died of pneumonia Oct. 22 at a nursing home in Davis, Calif. He was 85.
Mengel was head of the electronic instrument division at the Naval Research Laboratory on March 7, 1947, when he and his team shot the first photo ever taken from space at an altitude greater than 100 miles. They used a V-2 rocket acquired from Germany, substituting two aerial cameras for the warhead. The Colorado River, the Gulf of California, Baja California and the Pacific Ocean were visible in the photograph.
Dick Thompson, the research lab’s public affairs officer, said the flight revealed 300 new ultraviolet lines, which naval lab scientists were able to use to identify the presence of 17 chemical elements in the sun. “That was the big deal for us,” Thompson said. “At that time, those were the shortest ultraviolet wavelengths ever measured from the sun.”
Mengel, a native of Ballston Lake, N.Y., received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Union College in 1939. He taught physics at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., for a year, then worked for General Electric as a test engineer for vacuum tubes. From 1942 to 1946, he worked for the Navy’s Bureau of Ships as an engineer in electronic development, primarily in submarine detection.
After the war, he joined the Naval Research Laboratory to develop rocket telemetry and control systems. The highest that scientists could send experiments at that time was 20 miles, which was the top range of balloons, said Milton Rosen. He was Mengel’s superior on the first U.S. space effort, Project Vanguard. Mengel became head of the tracking and guidance branch of that project.
“Information from the electronics on the rocket was radioed back to Earth from a telemetering device. When the flight was over, so was the experiment,” Rosen said. “When the satellite era came along, Roger Easton and Jack Mengel had been working on a radio guidance system, and I asked if it could be adapted for satellites. They said they thought it could.”
That work, which continued when Mengel moved to NASA in 1958, resulted in a worldwide tracking system, Project Vanguard Minitrack, at Goddard Space Flight Center. It predicted and tracked the orbits of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, as well as satellites sent up by the Army and Vanguard rockets, “three of which are still in orbit,” Rosen said. “The first will be up there a thousand years. It was the earliest work of that sort. At that time, [Mengel] was the leading person in electronic tracking in the world.”
Minitrack’s concept was adapted by the Naval Research Laboratory in designing the system for maintaining surveillance of space objects and warning of vulnerability to foreign surveillance satellites. Minitrack was later named one of the 75 most innovative systems in the lab’s history.
When Mengel moved to NASA, so did most of the naval lab’s Vanguard team, which formed the basis of the Goddard Space organization. From 1959 to 1973, Mengel was director for tracking and data systems at Goddard. He retired in 1974.
Mengel and his wife, who survives him, lived in the Washington area for 31 years and moved to Davis three years ago. Other survivors include three children, a brother and four grandchildren.