Arthur Kantrowitz dies at 95; physicist pioneered rocket nose cones, intra-aorta pumps


Arthur R. Kantrowitz, a physicist and inventor whose research pioneered the development of nose cones for rockets as well as pumps to help failing hearts move blood more effectively, died of heart failure Nov. 29 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He was 95.

Though his expertise was in fluid mechanics, particularly the behavior of super-hot gases in confined spaces, Kantrowitz’s interests ranged far and wide, from early experiments in nuclear fusion, the energy source that powers stars, to fighting for the creation of a science court. Such a court, consisting of experts in a variety of fields, he reasoned, could help judges and policymakers decide questions such as whether certain pesticides were harmful.

“For lawyers, science is a mythical activity,” Kantrowitz said in a 1999 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. He hoped that a science court would help demystify the scientific process.


The seeds of Kantrowitz’s most significant contribution to the space program were sown at a Thanksgiving party in 1954. According to the New York Times, Kantrowitz, then a professor at Cornell University, listened as an early rocket scientist described the difficulties of designing nose cones that would not be destroyed by the heat of reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at 18,000 mph.

Kantrowitz said he thought he could solve the problem in six months. Using a so-called shock tube that released gas pulses to create temperatures of a million degrees, Kantrowitz determined that the best solution would be to coat the nose cones with a substance that would slowly ablate, or burn away, as the rocket plunged through the atmosphere.

The idea was vindicated by the retrieval of a charred nose cone from a test rocket, showing just the amount of burn-off that Kantrowitz predicted.

“The recovery of that nose cone,” Kantrowitz said later, according to the New York Times, “gave the first really solid authentication of the shock tube work” he had done earlier.

Kantrowitz was born Oct. 20, 1913, in New York City, the son of Bernard, a doctor, and Rose Esserman Kantrowitz. He studied physics at Columbia University, which set him apart from his family tree, heavily laden with doctors. One of his brothers, Adrian, became a pioneering heart surgeon; he died Nov. 14.

“I was sort of a black sheep,” Arthur Kantrowitz told the Boston Business Journal in 1997. He said he knew he wanted to be a physicist “even before I knew the word.”

In 1935, he went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA. It was there, according to an account in the New York Times, that he and a colleague performed one of the earliest experiments in fusion power. They bombarded hydrogen with radio waves to heat the gas, while squeezing it with a magnetic field, in hopes of converting it to helium and releasing energy, as the sun does.

They failed.

“It was a heartbreaking experience,” Kantrowitz told the New York Times. “I had just built a whole future around this; I wanted to make it a career.”

Obtaining his doctorate from Columbia in 1947 for work he did under Edward Teller, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, Kantrowitz began his teaching career at Cornell. He later left the university to found the Avco Everett Research Laboratory in Everett, Mass., where he did his shock tube work on nose cones.

He also developed high- energy lasers that he suggest- ed could be used to propel spacecraft into low-Earth orbit. It was at Avco that he became a champion of a potential new source of electricity known as magnetohydrodynamics, which generates energy by passing ionized gas through a magnetic field. Though possessing high efficiency ratings, the technology has never broken through to achieve widespread usage.

In the 1960s, Kantrowitz and other researchers designed the intra-aorta balloon pump. Inserted into an artery, it helps the heart move blood around the body. The device has been used on 3 million patients, including Kantrowitz himself after he suffered a heart attack Nov. 28, the day before he died, the New York Times said.

In 1978, Kantrowitz retired from Avco and joined the faculty at Dartmouth College. According to the university’s School of Engineering, Kantrowitz held 21 patents, and served on government advisory boards in the Ford administration, the Department of Commerce, NASA, the General Accounting Office and the National Science Foundation.

His passion in the last decades of his life was the science court, which he hoped would be used to settle controversies over whether this or that technology, or substance, posed a hazard. He suggested that the court should operate like a court of law, in which opposing experts could present their cases to independent fact-finders.

“The notion that scientists don’t have their own ideologies is an idealization of people who are not ideal,” Kantrowitz explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though he once served as chairman of a presidential task force investigating the idea, it never gained traction with the public.

Kantrowitz is survived by his second wife, Lee Stuart, and three children.

Kantrowitz’s body was cremated. Most of his ashes will be scattered in the sea where, according to Dartmouth officials, he loved to be aboard his sailboat. The rest will be placed under a marker near his parents’ grave on Long Island.

Johnson is a Times staff writer.