fb-pixel Skip to main content

Richard McCrosky; Harvard astronomer who directed observatories

RICHARD MCCROSKYLisa Aciukewicz/ Harvard Press/Harvard Press

An astronomer and scientist, Richard E. McCrosky tracked meteors, asteroids, and planets, and he once simultaneously directed two Smithsonian observatories, one in Massachusetts, the other in Arizona.

He didn't care much about titles, though. He held a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University but never expected to be called doctor. Instead, said his daughter Anne of Lunenburg, "he just wanted you to call him Mac," the nickname friends and colleagues used throughout his life.

Dr. McCrosky died in his Harvard home May 21 of respiratory failure. He was 88.

"I think his most important effect on me was his demonstration that it is better to correct one's errors than to spend time trying to avoid mistakes," Charles Whitney, a professor emeritus of astronomy at Harvard University who was a longtime friend, wrote in a eulogy he plans to deliver at Dr. McCrosky's memorial service on Saturday.


"I believe this is the mark of an artist, who lays down a bold line and then sees how to correct it," Whitney wrote. "His life was a series of steps made in the faith that he could succeed in tasks that many people might have considered impossible."

From 1962 to 1975, Dr. McCrosky was scientist-in-charge of the Prairie Meteorite Network, a system of 16 camera stations in the Midwest. The cameras collected data on very bright meteors, said Joe Zajac, engineer for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge.

"The data was used to locate and recover meteorites that might have survived trips to the Earth's surface," he said.

Later in Dr. McCrosky's career, when he directed the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, "Mac and his team searched for and tracked asteroids and minor planets, sometimes naming them," Zajac said.

Dr. McCrosky named one asteroid Chilton, his wife's middle name.


In 1994, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration presented Dr. McCrosky with an award recognizing his work "to refine the orbits of asteroids named Ida and Gaspra," Zajac said. "This allowed the NASA spacecraft Galileo to encounter them for the first close-up photographs and measurements of asteroids."

Dr. McCrosky traveled often for work and brought along his wife and children whenever possible.

"He had a really intense work ethic," his daughter said. "He was so funny and fun, but he was also serious. He had pretty impeccable standards."

Though work kept Dr. McCrosky looking skyward, his family said he kept a clear focus on the well-being of others.

His son, Steven of Flagstaff, Ariz., said Dr. McCrosky was "very concerned with society and people," and also was "humble and pragmatic."

Steven was 7 when his father rediscovered an Apollo asteroid, which could pose a threat to Earth because of the risk of collision. Steven said he then began "seeing my father as someone who literally was going to help save the Earth."

Years later, he asked his father about his role in the discovery. Dr. McCrosky, he said, was quick to credit the other people on his team, and said they merely "got lucky."

Dr. McCrosky was born in Akron, Ohio, and exhibited ambition and a strong work ethic from an early age.

The summer before his senior year in high school, he hitchhiked from Ohio to Cambridge, where his brother was pursuing a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was hired by MIT as a lab assistant and stayed until December, rendering himself a temporary high school dropout.


He returned to school in January and finished all the classes he needed to graduate on time while working eight-hour night shifts at B.F. Goodrich, where he built barrage balloons that were later used for aircraft defense in World War II.

He attended the University of Akron before volunteering for the Army Air Corps and enrolling in a meteorology training program at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He was sent to Guadalcanal in the Pacific, where he served as a weather observer.

After he was discharged as a sergeant, he returned to Cambridge, determined to attend MIT. According to his family, he was told he had missed MIT's cutoff date for applications. So he applied to Harvard, where he was accepted.

For the next decade, he worked and studied at Harvard. He was hired by the Harvard College Observatory to study weather patterns in New Mexico. Eventually, he built and managed two camera stations there, 40 miles apart, to track meteors.

His boss at the time was the astronomer Harlow Shapley. Jean Utter was working as Shapley's secretary, and first became acquainted with Dr. McCrosky by mail, when she opened a package of live ants he sent to Shapley from New Mexico.

They married in 1952. He graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in astronomy in 1956.

Their daughter said Dr. McCrosky liked to keep busy, and in the 1970s learned ways to make yogurt, bread, and beer. She said he was frugal and not inclined to dress up.


"He got his hair cut just twice a year," she said, "whether he needed it or not."

In addition to his wife, daughter, and son, Dr. McCrosky leaves two other daughters, Susan Lander of Owings Mill, Md., and Gail of Littleton; and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church in Harvard.

Dr. McCrosky, Zajac said, "had an amazing ability to see through all the lily-gilding in today's society and keep things simple, and beautiful."

"Mac would be calculating the orbits of Earth-crossing asteroids one day, and fixing his barn the next," Zajac said. "He was a true Renaissance man."

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.