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Most Interesting Person: Ralph Pass

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Professor Ralph Pass

Hana Block ’15

Staff Writer

About every 25 years Mars makes a close appearance to Earth. It was August 1956, as Professor Ralph Pass’s younger brother claimed to know which star appeared to be Mars in the night sky. Sure that his brother had it wrong they argued before his father made the boys prove which star was Mars. It was with that incentive that Pass went to the library to check out the little golden book of Astronomy, where he found that his brother was indeed wrong. Later that year Sputnik was launched into space, and Pass was the only one around that could actually locate it using his knowledge of the other constellations in the sky. It was during this time when Pass was bitten by the Astronomy bug and found his new passions for space.

In the fall of his senior year of college, Pass applied to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also known as NASA.

Graduating from the University of Maryland with a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1968, it was a very unique time when the world was doing stuff that was never done before. Pass took on his new career as a member of the Apollo project and had the chance to work on all the manned Apollo missions. His contributions consisted of providing early orbit determinations for unmanned missions. When Apollo 11 landed, Pass was 22 and had just helped put the first man on the moon. After eleven years at NASA, pass was working on another project called the space shuttle, starting it two years before it was predicted to launch. However after those two years, Pass decided that his time was done and he resigned from the job. Looking back at his career at NASA, Pass describes it as an interesting time that he liked and learned a lot about space and Earth. Although he was sad to go he does not regret leaving NASA, as it gave him other opportunities to achieve and move on with his life, which indeed he did.

Leaving NASA in 1979, Pass took on a number of different careers and callings. He became an oceanographer and participated in oceanographic experiments for the U.S. Navy, where he lived in a submarine for 3 weeks off the eastern coast of the United States. Pass also became a meteorologist and developed and operated meteorological stations and software for numerous public and private entities. He even became a hydrologist studying the movement of water and how soil moves through the Earth. Later he found himself working in advanced technologies at Putnam Investments for almost five years before providing software for robot control with the Draper Laboratory located in Cambridge MA. He also did some consulting before ending up at Merrimack College.

During the 1980’s, Pass moved to Andover and joined the North Shore amateur Astronomy Club. When they found out that Merrimack was putting up an observatory, Pass volunteered his services and helped Merrimack use their observatory for its first eleven years before eventually taking and still upholding the title as Director of the Observatory. After eleven years he asked why there was no astronomy classes being taught here at Merrimack where the answer was simply, there was no one to teach it. Pass offered his services the Thursday before finals to teach and three days later received a call telling him he would be teaching Tuesday and Thursday’s and that his class was already full. Pass started teaching during the spring of 2003, and now twelve years later he is teaching his final semester here at Merrimack College. Although he will no longer be teaching Astronomy, Pass will still maintain his title as the Director of the Observatory and will still host open houses for the college.

Pass still has some time to teach and shared some of the biggest misconceptions about Astronomy: that people still think the world is flat and that they don’t realize the sun is a star. When asked what the coolest thing he’s experienced about space, the answer was a total lunar eclipse. He advises everyone to experience at least one in his or her lifetime. When asked what people should be aware of our sky and space, Pass wants people to be aware that there are stars in the sky and there’s stuff out there that is very interesting. However we are loosing our ability to see all that stuff due to a growing problem of light pollution. We can see about 10 stars in the sky when we ought to be able to see 10 thousand, however this problem can be fixed; and once it is it will allow everybody to see the sky.

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