Edgar M. Cortright

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Contents

[top] Biography

Long before Edgar Cortright joined the NACA or became Langley Center Director or even graduated elementary school, he planned a career in aviation. "I always knew, from about age five on, what I wanted to be, because my father flew in World War I. I used to put his uniform on as a little kid, and I decided I wanted to be in aviation," Cortright said in an oral history interview conducted in 1998. He fulfilled that dream and more. Cortright's career spanned, not only some of the most ground-breaking years of aviation in the U.S., but all the early days of robotic and human space exploration.

Born on July 29, 1923, in Hastings, Pennsylvania, Cortright served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and later resumed his education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he received both a B.S. and an M.S. degree in aeronautical engineering. After graduation. Cortright joined the NACA as an aeronautical research scientist at Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland. From 1954-1958, he was Lewis' Chief of the Supersonic Wind Tunnel Branch and conducted research on supersonic aerodynamics. In 1958 he was appointed Chief of the Plasma Physics Branch.

NASA officials present President John F. Kennedy with a model of the Mariner 2 spacecraft, including Edgar M. Cortright, Deputy Director of NASA's Office of Space Sciences (right).

But, Sputnik changed everything. In 1958, NACA became NASA, and Cortright was named Chief of Advanced Technology Programs. He directed initial formulation of NASA’s meteorological satellite program, including TIROS and Nimbus. Later, he was appointed Assistant Director for Lunar and Planetary Programs. In 1961, he was appointed Deputy Director of NASA’s Office of Space Sciences. In 1963, he was appointed Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Sciences, the office responsible for applications, planning and directing NASA’s programs for robotic scientific exploration and utilization of space, including the lunar and planetary probes, the geophysical and astronomical satellites and probes, biosciences, applications satellites, and the development and use of light and medium launch vehicles. Over the next 10 years, he played a key role in planning and directing many human and robotic space programs. In 1968, Dr. Cortright was named Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Manned Space Flight.

Later in 1968, Cortright became Director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Under his leadership the NACA's original research laboratory turned its talents to Mars and successfully ran Project Viking. Launched in 1975, the two Viking probes (each including an orbiter and lander) sent the first high- resolution images of the Martian surface and analyzed surface samples in the landers' on-board laboratory searching for signs of life. Viking 1 was the first human-made object to successfully soft-land on the Red Planet. In 1970 Cortright was also called upon to lead the Apollo 13 failure review board (also known as the Cortright Commission). Cortright retired from NASA in 1975 after 30 years of government service. He went on to further accomplishments in private industry, eventually retiring as President of the Lockheed- California Company in 1983.

Cortright is the author of numerous technical reports and articles. He was proud of his books, “Exploring Space With a Camera,” which he compiled and edited, and “Apollo Expeditions to the Moon,” which he edited. His awards and citations include the Arthur Flemming Award (1963); the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal (1966); the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (1967); and the AAS Space Flight Award (1970). Cortright also received honorary doctorates from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and George Washington University.

NASA Headquarters press release 5 May 2014

[top] Interviews

Cortright, Edgar M. May, 1973

Cortright, Edgar July 18, 1988

Cortright, Edgar August, 1989

1998 Biographical Data Sheet

1998 Oral History Transcript

[top] Cortright Speech Collection - Langley Archives Room

Note: Instances of missing pages and poor image resolution reflect the condition of the original documents from the collection.

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[top] Photos

[top] Obituary

DR. EDGAR CORTRIGHT, of Palm City, Florida, passed away peacefully on May 4, 2014 at the age of 90 following a stroke.

Dr. Cortright was an engineer, scientist and administrator, best known for his work as Director of NASA's Langley Research Center during which time he directed Project Viking which successfully landed the first spacecraft on Mars in 1976.

Edgar Maurice Cortright was born in Hastings, PA on July 29, 1923 to Edgar Maurice Cortright, Sr. and Janet Pearsall Cortright. He attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), receiving a B.S. and M.S. degree in aeronautical engineering. Later in his life, he was awarded Honorary PhDs from both RPI and George Washington University. Dr. Cortright served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and was on the carrier USS Saratoga when it was bombed in the Pacific.

In 1945 Dr. Cortright married Beverly Jane Hotaling, to whom he remained married for 67 years until her death in 2012.

After graduation from college, Dr. Cortright joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA, as an aeronautical research scientist to conduct research on supersonic aerodynamics. Sputnik changed everything. In 1958 Dr. Cortright was recruited to join a small taskforce that created NASA. He held a number of positions in the 1960s. Dr. Cortright led the initial formulation of NASA's meteorological satellite program. This was the first time satellites were used to study the earth. He brought the weather photos commonly displayed on television today to the public. He directed NASA's programs for unmanned scientific exploration and utilization of space, including the lunar and planetary probes; the geophysical and astronomical satellites and probes; biosciences; applications and satellites; and the development and use of light and medium launch vehicles. During the following ten years Dr. Cortright played a key role in planning and directing many manned and unmanned space programs.

In 1968 Dr. Cortright was named Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Manned Space Flight. Later, in 1968 Dr. Cortright became Director of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. He spent the next years dedicated to landing a space vehicle on Mars. Under his direction, the Project Viking made the first Mars landing in 1976. Viking brought back high- resolution images of the Martian surface and took surface samples, analyzed them for composition and signs of life, as well as studied atmospheric composition and meteorology, and deployed seismometers. Viking's findings revolutionized our understanding of Martian geology and possibility for sustaining life, demonstrating large areas of terrain seemingly influenced by rivers, lakes and volcanoes not dissimilar to those on Earth. Its findings provided the foundation of our understanding of Mars into the 21st century.

In 1970 Dr. Cortright was honored to chair the Apollo 13 Review Board. This Review Board was charged with reviewing the circumstances surrounding the Apollo 13 accident, establishing the probable cause, and making recommendations for corrections.

After 30 years of government service Dr. Cortright retired from NASA. He became Vice President and Technical Director of Owens-Illinois Corporation and subsequently President of the Lockheed-California Co., where he was involved in the oversight of key U.S. defense projects including the development of the F-117A Stealth Fighter. After retirement from Lockheed, Dr. Cortright became involved in small business.

Dr. Cortright is the author of numerous technical reports and articles. He was proud of his books, "Exploring Space With a Camera" and "Apollo Expeditions to the Moon." These books were among NASA's best-selling publications to date and were two of the first publications revealing space-based photography to the public. Dr. Cortright's awards and citations include the Arthur Flemming Award (1963); NASA outstanding Leadership (1966); NASA Distinguished Service (1967); AAS Space Flight Award (1970).

Dr. Cortright's leisure activities included golfing, boating, and listening to music. He was interested in architecture and visual arts. Dr. Cortright designed three of his homes including the one he most cherished on Wormley Creek in Yorktown, VA.

Dr. Cortright's education changed his life; he believed strongly in the value of education and he was proud to have educated his children, donated to colleges, and created scholarships for minority students attending college. Dr. Cortright was a kind, modest, respectful, honest, and generous man who loved golden retrievers, people, and most of all, his wife, Beverly. Until his dying day, Ed always greeted each person he saw with his warm and memorable smile.

Edgar is survived by his brother, David P. Cortright of Jenkintown, PA; his daughter, Susan Weiss of Auburn, ME; his son, David E. Cortright of St. Louis, MO; his son-in-law, Robert Weiss; his daughter-in-law, Cathy Cortright; and his three grandsons, as well as six nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his sister, Janet Smith.

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