Chesley Hall Looney, pioneering NASA engineer and beloved husband and father, died at the age of ninety on August 19, 2018. Born on April 7, 1928, in Newburg, Missouri, the only child of Chesley Hobert Looney and Audra Marie Hall Looney, he grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, where his father was deputy warden and later head warden of the federal penitentiary. The younger Chesley spent almost a year in the United States Army starting in 1946, was honorably discharged when the wartime military demobilized, and then graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1950 with a degree in electrical engineering, a profession in which he always took special pride. In Lawrence he met the love of his life, Ida Ruth Courtright, a Kansas farmer’s daughter whom he married on February 14, 1950, and with whom he shared sixty-six years of unalloyed happiness.
After one year with an engineering firm in Kansas City, Mr. Looney moved to Maryland to work for the Naval Research Laboratory. He spent several years developing very accurate time and frequency measurement before January 1, 1956, when he joined the Project Vanguard program aiming to put the first satellite into space. He later described the Russian launch of Sputnik as the worst day of his life, but Vanguard was eventually launched in 1958 and was a great scientific success. Later that same year Ches was a founding employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and in 1959 a founding worker at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He was part of the small group of engineers who designed and built the Minitrack system that tracked the orbits and captured telemetry from America’s first satellites. In this connection he traveled all over the world setting up the necessary antenna arrays and the later large dishes. Looney went on to spend more than thirty years at Goddard working with early computer systems and helping to set up the communication networks that even today process the data for all NASA launch and orbital activities. After retiring as a federal employee and a brief stint in private industry, he returned to Goddard as a contract employee and continued there well into his eighties.
In private life Ches and Ruth began a family. She died in 2016, but they are survived by all five of their children, Chesley Howard (wife Leslie), Richard Glen (wife Kelly), John Jefferson (wife Judith), Andrew James (wife Kristin), and Kathleen Ruth, as well as four grandchildren, Sarah Elizabeth (Shriner), Eric Chesley, James Jefferson, and Sharon Abigail, and three Shriner great-grandchildren, Abigail Mae, Matthew Robert, and Nathan Gabriel.
Chesley was a wonderful father who spent years as a scoutmaster while his sons were in the Boy Scouts and took the family on yearly camping trips that eventually brought them to all fifty states. He enjoyed science fiction from his childhood, had an inveterate curiosity about how things worked, dabbled in carpentry, leatherwork, and photography, and loved VW Beetles, swing music, and doing just about anything with Ruth, including bicycling, train trips, and helping her achieve her lifelong ambition by squiring her to all seven continents. Like her, he was a much-loved parishioner and choir singer at University Christian Church.
A memorial service and celebration of Ches’s life will be held at University Christian Church, 6800 Adelphi Rd, Hyattsville, MD 20782, Saturday, October 27, 2018, at 2 PM. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Montgomery Hospice or to University Christian Church.
1355 Piccard Drive, #100, Rockville, MD 20850, AL
University Christian Church
6800 Adelphi Road, Hyattsville MD 20782