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Professor emeritus Harold Wachman dies at 85

Wachman chaired AeroAstro grad program
Professor Harold Wachman in a family photograph from 2011
Professor Harold Wachman in a family photograph from 2011
Photo courtesy of the Wachman family

Retired Aeronautics and Astronautics Department Professor Harold Y. Wachman of Lexington, Mass., passed away on March 25. He was 85.

Wachman taught thermodynamics to generations of Course 16 Unified Engineering (16.01-16.04) students. He also taught freshman physics and graduate classes in rarefied gas dynamics.

Wachman’s research focused on low-density gas behavior, low gravity combustion and ice nucleation, investigated ice crystal formation in a vacuum, and combustion in the absence of gravity. Among his research interests was the exploration of the dynamics of molecular scattering at surfaces of solids. Several experiments inspired by his laboratory research were conducted aboard Space Shuttle missions.

Wachman was born on Dec. 2, 1927 in Tel Aviv. In 1940, he immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y. Following his graduation from City College of New York, he was drafted into the Army and stationed at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. There, he worked on the development of a civilian nerve gas detector.

Once discharged from the Army, Wachman moved to Columbia, Mo., where he earned his Ph.D. in photochemistry at the University of Missouri. In 1956, Wachman joined General Electric’s Space Sciences Laboratory in Pennsylvania, where he researched molecular collisions responsible for satellite drag and orbital decay. In 1962, he was recruited to the AeroAstro Department faculty by Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, where he served until his retirement in 1996.

“Though research and teaching were his passion, when serving on the MIT committees on academic performance, and graduate school policy, and in his long tenure as AeroAstro’s graduate program chairman, my father worked passionately to maintain and defend MIT’s environment of academic excellence from those who would unwittingly or intentionally hamper it with, what was in his view, unnecessary bureaucracy,” says Joshua Wachman (SB ’90, SM ’96).

“Well-respected for an uncommon wisdom and well-regarded for his rare wit, my father was an intellect nurtured by curiosity and guided by a strong moral code," Wachman adds. "Friends and colleagues knew him as an engaging conversationalist always ready to share a good glass of wine and an entertaining anecdote filled with a telltale blend of humor and morality.”

Harold Wachman is survived by his wife of 58 years, Barbara, and sons Joel (SM ’90) and Joshua. He was also father of the late Tufts University Fletcher School Professor Alan M. Wachman.

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