Barry Michael Lasker


Died February 10, 1999

College: Timothy Dwight

Widow: Mrs. Barry M. Lasker
Address Not Available

On 10 February 1999, the astronomy community suffered a great loss with the sudden death in Baltimore of Barry M. Lasker, following a heart attack. An astronomer for almost 40 years, Barry played an important role in the creation of two major astronomy facilities, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore.

After Yale, Barry went to Princeton for a Ph.D. in astrophysics in 1964. After a post-doc at the Hale Observatories in Pasadena from 1965 to 1967, he spent two years as an astronomy professor at the University of Michigan.

In 1969, he was offered the opportunity to move to a remote mountain site in northern Chile as one of the first astronomers at the new Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. For the next ten years, Barry was as comfortable with a soldering iron and wrench as he was performing his own observations on the interstellar medium. He was one of the early pioneers in using computers to control telescopes and instruments.

In 1981, when NASA created a research-oriented institution, STScI, that would operate the Hubble Space Telescope, Barry moved to Baltimore to become one of its first scientists.

Barry’s prime responsibility was to design a system to measure the positions of stars that the telescope could lock onto and use as guides for each observation. With typical foresight, he organized an effort to obtain photographic plates of the entire sky, build a machine to digitize them, and use image-processing software to detect and measure 20 million stars. The resulting Guide Star Catalog was a tremendous success, and, since its publication in 1989, it has become the accepted guide star standard for most telescopes and space missions.

In recognition of his long-term service to the scientific community, the American Astronomical Society awarded him its 1999 Van Biesbroeck Prize.

Barry was a reserved and modest man, but he was clearly both a gentleman and a scholar in the truest sense of the expression, and he treated everyone with respect and gave freely of his accumulated wisdom and extensive knowledge. A professional mentor to many young scientists, he provided advice that usually ended with a literary quotation (frequently from the Dr. Seuss books) to illustrate his point. His vision and kindness will be greatly missed, but his memory will live on in the hearts and minds of those who were privileged to know and work with him.

— by Brian McLean, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD. Edited for length from an obituary article that originally appeared in PHYSICS TODAY, June 1999 (published by the American Physical Society).”