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Raymond Heacock, JPL engineer who worked on Voyager mission, dies at 88

Raymond Heacock, JPL engineer who worked on Voyager mission, dies at 88
JPL engineer Raymond Heacock, center, looks at new images of the moon in 1965 with colleagues Gerard P. Kuiper and Ewen Whitaker, right. (NASA)

Raymond Leroy Heacock, an engineer who guided NASA's Voyager mission through encounters with both Jupiter and Saturn, has died at his home in La Crescenta at the age of 88.

Heacock, who died Tuesday, spent his entire career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Caada Flintridge, where he worked from 1953 until his retirement in 1990.

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He contributed to some of the most notable space probes during his career, including the Mariner missions to Mars, Venus and Mercury, and the Hubble Space Telescope. However, he is best known for his work on the ambitious Voyager mission, which explored the outer planets of the solar system as well as their moons, and is still sending back data from the edge of the solar system today.

"It was his crowning achievement, and it's kept going longer than him," said his son, Dave Heacock.

Indeed, NASA expects the spacecraft to continue to send back information about interstellar space through 2020 and possibly beyond.

Heacock was born in Santa Ana on Jan. 9, 1928. He was the oldest of nine children and attended a one-room schoolhouse. He joined the Navy after finishing high school, and went on to get a bachelor's and master's in engineering at Caltech. He started working at JPL immediately after graduation.

In the 1950s, Heacock contributed to some of the earliest JPL projects, including the Sergeant Missile project and the first American Earth satellite, Explorer 1. In the 1960s he was a co-investigator on the Ranger Imaging Science Team, which was responsible for obtaining the first high-resolution images of the moon.

Heacock was named spacecraft system manager for the Voyager project in 1970. In that capacity, he was responsible for the design, development, test and launch operations of the twin spacecraft.

His wife, Yvonne, whom he met at JPL in the early '60s, said his work was his passion.

"Most of the guys that worked on those projects, it was really their whole lives," she said. "They worked for weeks and weeks without days off."

In 1977, Heacock brought his whole family to attend the launch of Voyager 1 at Cape Canaveral.

Yvonne recalled that she and some of the other wives decided to throw a celebratory dance for the people working on the mission. They rented a warehouse and asked one of the engineers to help them hang decorations from the ceiling.

"Then suddenly Raymond came in and said, 'Get that guy off that ladder!'" she said.

Her husband was worried that if the engineer fell, and something happened to the spacecraft, there would be no one else who could fix it.

"He was really in a panic," she said.

The launch was successful and Heacock continued his work with Voyager, ultimately serving as project manager of the mission from 1979-81.

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Thanks to his work on the mission, in 1979 he became the fifth American to receive the James Watt International Gold Medal for excellence in engineering. In 1981 he received both NASA's Distinguished Service Medal and the National Space Club's Astronautics Engineer Award.

Although he formally retired in 1990, he continued to work as a consultant for many more years.

Heacock had five children and was a lifelong science fiction fan, but his wife said that for most of his life, his work took top priority.

"He loved his job, and that was his life," she said.

Do you love science? I do! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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