Space scientist John Freeman dies at 82

Space weather expert designed experiments for Apollo, directed Glasscock’s Master of Liberal Studies program

John Freeman, a Rice professor emeritus and research professor of physics and astronomy and first director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, died July 15 in Dallas. He was 82.

Freeman joined Rice’s then-named Department of Space Science in 1964 after a year as a staff scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

John Freeman

John Freeman

Freeman’s primary research focused on space weather. He followed in the footsteps of space science pioneer James Van Allen, his mentor at the University of Iowa, where Freeman earned his master’s degree and a Ph.D. in 1963. He worked on early models of Earth’s magnetosphere for space weather analysis and prediction and was instrumental in developing the Magnetospheric Specification and Forecast Model funded and deployed by the Air Force. He also worked on a program to evaluate the feasibility of satellite-based solar power.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Freeman was principal investigator of the Suprathermal Ion Detection Experiment (SIDE), part of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP). Set up on the moon during the Apollo 12, 14 and 15 missions, the nuclear-powered ALSEP was an octopus-like set of experiments that measured characteristics of the thin atmosphere found near the moon’s surface.

Pointed into the solar wind, it was the first to detect water vapor on the moon and gathered groundbreaking data about the composition and nature of Earth’s magnetosphere for nearly seven years.

Freeman told Rice News in 2009 that getting the experiments ready to fly was a monumental task, partly because the science was new but mostly because of Apollo’s mandate to put humans on the moon by the end of the ’60s.

“The Apollo program had such incredible time pressures on it,” he said. “We were building hardware and hiring subcontractors before we actually had the paper contracts. This was the story of NASA throughout.”

SIDE was built by subcontractors in California and tested at Rice in a series of vacuum chambers, ion beams and vibration tables set up in the basement of the Space Science building. “That’s where we worked day and night, 24 hours a day, getting this thing tested and calibrated and ready for flight,” Freeman said.

His work on Apollo earned Freeman the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the Apollo Achievement Award and a Distinguished Service Citation from his undergraduate alma mater, Beloit College.

“There was enormous spirit at that time,” said Alexander Dessler, professor emeritus of space physics and astronomy, who founded the world’s first university department of space science at Rice and hired Freeman. “Everybody was in their late 20s or early 30s. We were young, optimistic, high energy and enthusiastic and John fit right into that. He was a very cheery guy with a lot of ideas.

“He buoyed up the department in his formative days,” Dessler said. “Some professors are more likeable than others and John was definitely a very likeable guy for the students – and everybody. I think that came through for his entire life. He came in well-equipped to be at the forefront of research and added vigor to the department from the very beginning.”

Over the years, Freeman taught both graduate and undergraduate space physics and physics courses, including a series of natural science courses for nonscience majors as well as pre-med physics. Eighteen students earned their Ph.D.s in his group, according to his longtime colleague Patricia Reiff, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy.

Freeman retired from the department in 2000, though he continued to pursue his research interests. The author of numerous papers, articles and presentations, he served as editor in chief of Space Power, a journal dedicated to space applications, and authored a book, “Storms in Space,” published in 2001.

He became the first director of the Master of Liberal Studies degree program at the Glasscock School in 2005, serving in that position until August 2016. According to the school, he helped select the first faculty, taught courses himself and was instrumental in developing curriculums for humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

“He was invaluable,” said Mary McIntire, who recently retired as dean of the Glasscock School. “The first year of the program, he was a student adviser, and at the end of the year he became the director. He loved that job. He once told me it was the best part of his career. He loved working with the adults. He loved teaching them and he liked the idea of broadening people’s view of the world.

“I saw him as a Renaissance man,” she said. “John knew a lot about literature, philosophy, religion, politics. He was a scientist, but he was also a broad human being in his cultural awareness and his knowledge. He was the perfect person to oversee an interdisciplinary program in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.”

In 2011, Freeman oversaw the creation of the Master of Liberal Studies Writers Group, of which he was a member, sharing his talents as playwright, a poet and a writer of creative nonfiction.

McIntire noted Freeman ran half marathons as recently as four years ago and that he was a frequent volunteer on water projects in Haiti, the Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba. He was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary for his work to develop water systems in developing countries. He did lay casework and served as chairman of the board of the Houston branch of Family Outreach of America, an organization dedicated to the prevention of child abuse and neglect, working there for five years with his Rice colleague Umbe Cantu, operations administrator for the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

He also served as master of Lovett College.

Freeman recently celebrated his 60th anniversary with his wife, Phyllis. The couple had a daughter, Laurie, and a son, David. A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Houston.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.