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Scientist-astronaut and former MIT professor William B. Lenoir dies at 71

An MIT junior faculty member in the 1960s, he later flew on the space shuttle and became a NASA associate administrator.
William B. Lenoir ’61, SM ’62, PhD ’65
William B. Lenoir ’61, SM ’62, PhD ’65
Photo: NASA

William B. Lenoir ’61, SM ’62, PhD ’65, a former MIT professor and scientist-astronaut who flew as a mission specialist on the fifth flight of the U.S. space shuttle, died on Aug. 26 in Florida as a result of head injuries sustained during a bicycle accident. He was 71.

“He was a model for what the science astronaut should be,” said Laurence Young, the Apollo Professor of Astronautics at MIT and a former member of the astronaut corps, who knew Lenoir from his days at NASA.

MIT has always been a major source of astronauts, but Young noted that Lenoir was “the only one to have gone from active faculty status to become a flown astronaut — and he brought with him the mature analytical judgment of an MIT ‘lifer.’” (Two other MIT faculty have served in the astronaut office: Young was a payload specialist but served only as flight alternate, and Professor of the Practice Jeffrey Hoffman, who made five space shuttle flights, joined MIT’s academic instructional staff after he left NASA.)

From 1964 to 1965, Lenoir was an instructor at MIT, and in 1965, he was named assistant professor of electrical engineering. His work at MIT included teaching electromagnetic theory and systems theory as well as performing research in remote sensing. He was an investigator in several satellite experiments and continued research in this area while fulfilling his astronaut assignments. He was a Sloan Scholar and winner of the Carleton E. Tucker Award for Teaching Excellence at MIT.

Lenoir was selected as a scientist-astronaut by NASA in August 1967. He was backup science pilot for Skylab 3 and Skylab 4, the second and third manned missions in the Skylab Program. During Skylab 4, he was co-leader of the visual observations project and coordinator between the flight crew and the principal investigators for the solar science experiments.

From September 1974 to July 1976, Lenoir worked as leader of the NASA Satellite Power Team. This team was formed to investigate the potential of large-scale satellite power systems for terrestrial utility consumption. Lenoir supported the space shuttle program in the areas of orbit operations, training, extravehicular activity, and payload deployment and retrieval.

In 1982, Lenoir logged more than 122 hours in space as a mission specialist on the shuttle mission STS-5, the first flight to deploy commercial satellites. Following STS-5, Lenoir was responsible for the direction and management of mission development within the Astronaut Office.

Lenoir left NASA in September 1984, to assume a position with management and technology consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. He returned to NASA in June 1989 as the associate administrator for space flight, responsible for the development, operating and implementation of the necessary policy for the space shuttle and all U.S. government civil launch activities. He left NASA again in April 1992 for Booz Allen.

“When he returned to NASA as associate administrator for space flight, during the critical formative years of the International Space Station, he continued to show his technical acumen and good-natured leadership,” Young said of Lenoir. “During that period, when he was overseeing all of the human flight programs, he once remarked to me ‘When you find out who is in charge of the Space Station, be sure to let me know.’”

As an alumnus, Lenoir remained active with MIT through various volunteer efforts. Beginning right after his graduation, Lenoir took an annual fund role in the second century fund campaign; recently he was vice president of the Alumni Association's Board of Directors and a member of the Committee on Nominations for Corporation Visiting Committees. He also served as a leader in the Class of 1961, and was working on his 50th reunion and reunion gift at the time of his passing. He was a leader with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) alumni group, hosting reunions of his fraternity brothers and working on SAE’s recolonization. He was an alumni nominee to the MIT Corporation from 1992-1997 and served on the Aeronautics and Astronautics Visiting Committee from 1992-2009.

In 2009, Lenoir chaired the Alumni Association’s Ad Hoc Committee on Organizing Alumni for K-12 Education. Drawing on his experiences as a partner at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, Inc., and as a senior administrator in NASA, he led an analysis of the roles alumni can play in addressing the critical national educational issue. 

Lenoir was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal in 1974 and the NASA Space Flight Medal in 1982. He was a senior member of the IEEE, a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Eta Kappa Nu and the Society of Sigma Xi.

Lenoir is survived by his wife, Terri Waite, and three grown children.

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