Prominent Tech professor Charles Moore dies


Charles B. Moore, renowned researcher on atmospheric physics, passed away on Tuesday, March 2, in Socorro.

Moore was professor emeritus of physics at New Mexico Tech and former chairman of Tech’s Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. Although he retired in 1985, he remained active in his research until the last few years, when Alzheimer’s disease affected him. He is survived by his wife, Wilma, and their three children, Charles III, Rita and Malcolm.



Moore took a long and circuitous route to the heights of his profession, and managed to bypass a doctoral degree along the way — until 2003, when he was awarded an honorary degree by New Mexico Tech. He received numerous awards from fellow scientists, including a fellowship awarded by the American Geophysical Union, the Otto C. Winzen Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Atmospheric Electricity Community.

Moore was born on Oct. 28, 1920, in Maryville, Tenn. He started college at Georgia Institute of Technology in 1940, but like many of his generation, his education was interrupted by service in World War II. He served as a weather equipment officer for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the China-Burma-India theater, and later was a weather observer in occupied China.

Moore returned to Georgia Tech, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1947. He was then recruited for Project Mogul by New York University, which conducted the project for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Moore later recalled that the extended field trips were what ended his graduate schooling.

Project Mogul involved launching balloons to carry microphones up to the base of the stratosphere, where the temperature of the atmosphere is highly effective at refracting sound waves. At the time, 1947, the United States was concerned with listening for nuclear testing by other countries, especially the Soviet Union, so the microphone-bearing balloons were launched to listen for the sounds.

The experiment succeeded in detecting U.S. nuclear tests in the South Pacific, 6,000 miles away, but it also added an important footnote to American cultural history. A balloon launched by Moore in June 1947, later proved to be the item that is enshrined at Roswell as a “UFO.” Moore didn’t realize the part he had played in the drama until he happened to see a newspaper picture of the pieces of the “UFO” in the 1990s.

Moore was considered a pioneer in the development and testing of modern polyethylene balloons as atmospheric research tools. In 1947, he made the first flight in a such a balloon, and in a later test, he made a 24-hour balloon flight from Minneapolis to New Jersey. In 1957, he made a record-breaking flight to the altitude of 82,000 feet in a pressurized balloon gondola, with Commander Malcolm D. Ross. During this flight, he made the first measurements which discovered traces of water vapor in the atmosphere of Venus.

After he carried reconnaissance cameras to high altitude for the U.S. Air Force, a program to fly balloons carrying these cameras over the Soviet Union was established by General Mills, for whom Moore worked until 1953. He was then offered an opportunity to work for Arthur D. Little, a research company in Cambridge, Mass., again on a project involving research by balloon. While there, he designed and built the first alkaline-metal vaporizers used in rocket-borne ionospheric probes. Also at Little, Moore met and began his long collaboration with Dr. Bernard Vonnegut.

Vonnegut was well-known as the scientist who had discovered that silver iodide could be used for cloud seeding. In 1956, Moore and Vonnegut were invited to New Mexico by E.J. Workman, then president of New Mexico Tech, to conduct thunderstorm research at Mt. Withington, some 70 miles west of Tech. For three successive summers, Moore and Vonnegut hauled truckloads of equipment to and from Boston each year, until the fateful day in 1958, when Moore suggested that what they needed was a mountaintop lab where the equipment could be kept year round.

Workman and his colleague Marx Brook liked the idea, but instead of Mt. Withington, as Moore proposed, they decided to put their lab in the Magdalena Mountains, closer to Socorro and within line-of-sight of the campus. By 1964, their lab — Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research — was built and ready to put into operation. In 1965, Dr. Stirling Colgate, the new president of New Mexico Tech, offered jobs to both Moore and Vonnegut. The latter chose to stay at Arthur D. Little — and later moved to SUNY Albany — but Moore was delighted at the opportunity and came to Tech as an associate professor of physics and research physicist.

In 1969, he became the chairman of Langmuir Laboratory. During his time at the helm, Moore greatly expanded the lab’s facilities. He obtained funding for and organized the construction of a large addition to the Main Building, a balloon hangar, an airplane hangar, and underground shielded rooms (Faraday cages) on South Baldy Peak for studying nearby lightning. He was also responsible for the construction of a vertically scanning radar and for solving the political problems to allow the launching of instrumented rockets into thunderstorms over Langmuir Laboratory. In addition, he organized the modification and instrumentation of an airplane that has flown into thunderstorms for many years.

Moore also taught techniques of launching balloons in severe weather to a number of Tech faculty members and students, many of whom continued their work in the field. Thus, he was the mentor of many of today’s scientists who study electrical properties of severe storms.

Moore nominally retired from New Mexico Tech in 1985, but continued to be active in research. He developed the first real improvement to the lightning rod since Benjamin Franklin invented it in the 18th Century, by proving that blunt-tipped rods were more effective than pointed-tipped ones. As a result of his work, most of the lightning rods manufactured in the United States today are blunt-tipped.

Moore was a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and received New Mexico Tech’s Distinguished Research Award in 1984 and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1997. He was a fellow in three scientific societies: The Royal Meteorological Society, American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Upon presenting Moore with an honorary doctorate in 2003, Dr. Daniel H. López of New Mexico Tech said, “In a real sense, this is not an honorary doctorate at all. Charles B. Moore has been a leader in the field of atmospheric physics, and he has done research that would have earned him a Ph.D. many times over, had he consented to accept one before now.”

Dr. Paul Krehbiel, an atmospheric researcher who knew Moore well, commented, “Charlie was a person of many talents. He was a pioneer in the study of thunderstorms and lightning and a font of scientific knowledge. He was a true student of history and a historian in his own right, and possessed an excellent memory. He was a mentor and educator of many, myself included. His legacy lives on in the ideas, studies and projects that he developed and worked on over his long and amazingly varied career.”

Dr. William Winn, who worked with Charles Moore for many years, said, “Charles inspired me and many other young investigators with his enthusiasm, independent thinking, and precise use of the English language, and he was a delightful companion because of his good humor and storytelling skills.”


Contact Kathleen Hedges