John T. Mengel, a NASA pioneer who shot the first space photograph, died on Oct. 22 of pneumonia. He was 85.
Mengel graduated in 1939 with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Union College in New York. He taught for a year at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania before leaving academia to work on anti-submarine devices at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Mengel experimented with telemetry and the radio control systems found in captured German V-2 rockets. To design the first research nose shell to replace of the V-2 warhead, Mengel launched rockets into near-Earth orbit. During one of these trials in 1947, his team placed two cameras in the nose shell of a rocket and shot the first photo from space at an altitude greater than 100 miles.
In the 1950s, Mengel worked on guidance systems for the Viking missile project and ran the Tracking and Guidance Branch of Project Vanguard. His team developed a one-inch wavelength X-band interferometry system, which tracked Sputnik. It was named one of the 75 most innovative systems ever developed at the Naval Lab.
When the National Aeronautic and Space Administration was established in 1958, Mengel became the director for tracking and data systems at the Goddard Space Flight Center, a position he held until his retirement in 1974. For his service, he received the Exceptional Service Medal.