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James Potter, former aero/astro professor, dies at 68

James Potter, a former MIT professor who helped engineer navigation systems for the Apollo missions to the moon, died Dec. 6 at his Winchester home. He was 68.

Potter was known both for his brilliant problem-solving and his compassion for his students, said John Deyst, professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

"I always found him to be just the most kind and understanding person with his students you could imagine," said Deyst, who had Potter as one of his thesis advisors.

In 1962, Potter came up with what became known as the "Potter square root method," which solved a problem that had baffled everyone working on the guidance systems for the Apollo spacecraft.

"Everyone was stumped by the problem," Deyst said. "He went home over the weekend and came back with the solution and just kind of blew everybody away."

Potter joined the faculty at MIT in 1965, three years after earning his doctorate from MIT in mathematics. He left MIT in 1974 and worked at several private companies before returning to work at Draper Laboratory. In 1993 he launched a consulting firm, Potter Engineering, where he worked on classified intelligence research.

Born in Iowa City, he earned his bachelor's degree at Caltech in 1959.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara A. (Howard) Potter; a son, James N. Potter of Allston; and a daughter, Jennifer M. Potter of Austin, Texas.

A funeral service was held Dec. 9 at the Church of the Redeemer in Woburn, with interment in Wildwood Cemetery in Winchester.

Donations may be made to the Mass. Gen. Hospital Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, 165 Cambridge St., Suite 600, Boston, MA 02114.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 14, 2005 (download PDF).

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