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Ronald Eugene Pitts (1949 - 2008)

Ronald Pitts died on Sunday the 4th of May 2008.

Ronald Pitts, systems engineer in the Commanding Branch of the Space Telescope Science Institute and long-time Computer Sciences Corporation employee, died suddenly of a stroke on 4 May 2008 at his home in Laurel, Maryland. He was a dedicated scientist-engineer, husband, father, volunteer, and cherished friend to many.

Ron was born on 19 January 1949 in Tucson, Arizona, and was raised, along with his sister Suzanne, on his parents' turkey farm outside Tucson. He picked up practical knowledge from his father, Vernon, and became a competent amateur electrician and plumber, skills he kept honed and used throughout his life. His mother, Ruth (Stephens), was a nurse and taught him compassion and patience and encouraged his inquisitive mind. Ron attended public schools and enrolled at the University of Arizona, graduating with a B. S. in Astronomy in 1971. Being from a family of modest means, he put himself through school working summers and part-time at a large copper mine south of town.

Ron enrolled in the graduate astronomy program at the Ohio State University [OSU] in the fall of 1971 where he was a first-year fellowship student. During his second and third years, he was the Perkins Assistant, taking spectra for the very exacting but appreciative Philip Keenan who once remarked to another faculty member that Ron was the best observer he ever had. Later, in 1980, Ron was co-author with Keenan on "Revised MK Spectral Types for G, K, and M stars" and again in 1985 in a study of supergiants in open clusters. He met his future wife, Patricia Moore, also a graduate student in the department, and they were wed in 1973.

Ron was also partially supported during his early OSU years by an NSF grant to Robert Wing, writing parts of Wing's photometric reduction code and observing on the program at Kitt Peak and Flagstaff in the summer of 1974. Wing remembers him as being very competent and pleasant to work with. Ron's thesis topic was "Oscillator Strengths for Neutral Iron and Silicon" under the direction of Gerald Newsom, and he was awarded the PhD in 1979. Newson recalls his facility with instrumentation, designing new circuitry to solve problems with the shock tube and ferreting out sources of systematic errors, and that it was enjoyable to work with him. In the fall of 1979, Ron went to Ball State University where he taught undergraduate astronomy classes for four years.

In the summer of 1983, Ron left academia for the position of IUE Resident Astronomer with Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC] at the Goddard Space Flight Center where he joined a small contingent of other Ohio State graduates. For the next eleven years, he supported guest observers, implemented work-arounds as the IUE gyroscopes failed, improved calibrations, and had several proposals accepted to obtain spectra of spectrophotometric standards and to observe upper-main-sequence stars in the Pleiades, a Per, and NGC 2244, work that he did with Nancy Remage Evans. Ron worked diligently on the software to combine the best IUE calibration with ground-based data of the hot cluster stars and to fit the temperature and gravity. He also became interested in advanced technology for lunar remote telescopes and co-authored several studies with Peter Chen and others. After their children were of school age, Ron's wife Pat also worked for CSC/IUE for part of this period.

In October 1994, Ron transferred to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, where he joined the science instrument commanding group under the direction of Vicki Balzano. His first task was helping to write the commanding software controlling the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to be installed in HST in February 1997, and he became the in-house expert on the workings of this complex instrument, in particular on the details of the time-tag mode. In time, he became familiar with all the on-board instruments and oversaw the approval of the instrument commanding before the weekly HST command loads were distributed to the Goddard Space Flight Center for uploading to the telescope. In recent years, Ron participated in developing the onboard Javascript code for commanding the James Webb Space Telescope's Near-Infrared Spectrograph operations. He also helped write special commanding to support some activities to follow the final HST servicing mission. His "behind-the-scenes" contributions to IUE, HST, and JWST helped and will help astronomers around the world obtain their data.

Ron seemed knowledgeable about almost any subject and could talk engagingly and at length on politics, economics, a variety of technical topics, the history of the early Church, and science fiction, among others. He was one of those people who always appeared to be smiling. He, Pat, and their daughter Marie enjoyed singing in the Central Maryland Chorale, and he served his church as an elder, Sunday-school teacher, and choir member. Ron sat on various church committees, set up and maintained the computers, and devoted many hours to the upkeep of the building. After Hurricane Katrina, he went on two mission trips with church members to help victims in Mississippi. Once again, his carpentry, electrical, and plumbing skills made him a valuable team member.

Ron is survived by his wife, Pat, a cartographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, their son Mark, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and their daughter Marie, a graduate student in biology at the University of Maryland.

Affiliations: 

Space Telescope Science Institute

Obituary Written By: 
D. Jack MacConnell (Computer Sciences Corporation)
BAAS: BAAS, 2009, 41, 574
DOI: 
BAASOBIT2009012