Rocket science pioneer Morris Rosenthal dies at age 97 in Santa Rosa – J.
Space age pioneer Morris Rosenthal died on December 13 in Santa Rosa. He was 97 years old.
One of America’s most influential rocket scientists, Rosenthal helped launch the U.S. space program. He has held key research and development positions in the US Navy and US Air Force, as well as several California aerospace companies, including Hughes, Lockheed, and TRW, and has held more than 20 patents. He played an important role in making the first flights to the Moon and Mars; its technologies have been used on the Apollo Lunar Module lander, space shuttle programs, and the Hubble Space Telescope, which have revolutionized our understanding of the expanding universe.
Rosenthal helped send explorers into space. Among his friends were astronauts such as Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Alan Shepard. He was a confidant of the first Jewish admiral, Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear submarine, and the two shared one point of view: bureaucracy and stupidity are synonymous.
As a young scientist, Rosenthal ate cheese sandwiches with Albert Einstein in his Princeton office. They discussed physics and their mutual love for Israel and Judaism. “Look at the stars and really think,” Einstein advised Rosenthal. “The universe has a mysterious order, which we don’t understand. But the more I study science, the more I believe in God.
Born in 1924 to Romanian immigrants, Rosenthal grew up in Brooklyn. During WWII he volunteered as a parachutist, and during his training his parachute did not open in one pass. Breaking his back ended up saving his life, as most of his fellow paratroopers died on D-Day in 1944. Rosenthal then worked for the Manhattan Project while studying at Brooklyn Polytechnic University.
While working in Midland, Texas, Rosenthal frequently played poker with oilman and future President George H. Bush at the Scharbauer Hotel. With the support of Lyndon Baines Johnson, another future president of Texas, Rosenthal was implicated in the smuggling of weapons to Jewish fighters in pre-state Israel.
After Midland, Rosenthal moved to El Paso, Texas. In Congregation B’nai Zion, it was love at first sight for Elinor, who became his wife for 73 years.
Close to Fort Bliss and the White Sands Proving Ground (now known as the White Sands Missile Range), Rosenthal carried out secret rocket work with Wernher von Braun, a chief rocket scientist in Germany’s Hitler. In 1945, the United States’ secret intelligence program, Operation Paperclip, brought von Braun and 117 other Nazi rocket launchers to El Paso, beyond the reach of the Soviet Union.
The only Jew working closely with former Nazi scientists, Rosenthal described von Braun as “arrogant, ambitious and morally multifaceted.” Rosenthal reported some of the scientists as unrepentant Nazi war criminals to US and European authorities.
Rosenthal’s career continues to accelerate. It has played a vital role in American missile defense systems such as Titan, Minuteman, Nike Ajax, and Poseidon.
He went on to become a key developer of top-secret spacecraft that oversaw Soviet missile testing, Chinese nuclear weapons facilities, North Korean radar facilities, and terrorist training camps in the Middle East. The mechanical ears of these spacecraft listened to enemy military communications, including conversations in the Kremlin.
The high-resolution satellite program, named Hexagon, was perhaps Rosenthal’s most important contribution to American defense. Used to monitor arms control, these remote sensing systems uncovered enemy weapon production and deterred surprise attacks by tracking arms movements from Russia to Iran.
“I honestly think the Hexagon program was responsible for preventing WWIII,” said Phil Pressel, a designer of Hexagon cameras.
Inspired by his mentor Einstein, Rosenthal’s motto was ingenuity: “It’s not about thinking outside the box. It’s about realizing that there is no box.
He did, however, have boxes of keepsakes – although all were destroyed in the Oakland fires in 1991 and Santa Rosa in 2017.
A longtime guide at the Magnes Museum, Rosenthal was an educator who taught Jewish and non-Jewish groups throughout the Bay Area. He leaves behind a wife, Elinor; the children Donna (journalist, author and board member of J.), Justin and Debra; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.