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Robert J. Butler, former design research engineer at MIT, dies at 89

An MIT engineer for 25 years, he helped design instruments for NASA’s Voyager spacecraft.
Robert J. Butler
Robert J. Butler

Robert J. Butler, a former MIT mechanical engineer who helped design and prepare a number of exploratory spacecraft launched by NASA, died on Sept. 14 at his home in Nashua, N.H. He was 89.

For more than 25 years, Butler worked as research design engineer at what was formerly known as the MIT Center for Space Research and is now known as the MIT Space Plasma Group at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics.

During that time, he helped design and implement science experiments to be conducted onboard the Voyager 2 spacecraft that was launched in 1977. Voyager 2 continues to provide valuable scientific data about the giant outer planets and the properties of solar wind between and beyond the planets.

“We have lost an able engineer and an enthusiast in many realms of life,” said Alan Lazarus, a senior research scientist in MIT’s Department of Physics, who worked with Butler on Voyager and other programs. “I was a physicist with many demands, and he was the engineer who kept my demands reasonable.”

John Belcher, the Class of 1922 Professor of Physics, who also collaborated with Butler on Voyager and other research projects, described his former colleague as “a great engineer” who “built a great instrument on Voyager.” That instrument, known as the “PLS plasma instrument,” was designed to characterize the plasma conditions that Voyager would encounter during its trek into the outer regions of the solar system. Butler was the project manager for the instrument, which continues to collect data that are transmitted back to Earth.

Born on June 26, 1921, in Waterbury, Conn., Butler was the son of the late James and Elsie (Kellner) Butler. After graduating from Waterbury High School, he received his B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1941. He was a member of Alpha Kappa Pi while attending RPI.

During World War II, Butler served as a First Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and distinguished himself as an aircraft engineer officer in the North African Theater of Operations.

He joined MIT in 1964 and worked on various NASA space missions during his career at the Institute. He retired in 1980.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Mary E. Butler; three daughters and their husbands, Karla and Stephen Melendy, Kristin Butler and William Tarala, and Kellner and Glenn Rodermerk; two grandsons, Kolin Melendy and his partner Adam DuBois, and Kyle Melendy; two sisters-in-law, Jane Corie and Florence Duane and numerous nieces and nephews.

A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Farwell Funeral Home at 18 Lock Street in Nashua, N.H. Friends are invited to attend. Interment will take place on Sept. 20 at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen, N.H. Donations may be made in Butler’s memory to a charity of one’s choice.

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