Alexander J. Dessler, 1928–2023

Alexander J . Dessler

Credit: USRA.

Pioneering space scientist Alexander Dessler, who taught at Rice University for 30 years after founding the first university department dedicated to the study of space science at the height of the U.S.-Soviet space race, died April 9 at age 94 in Bryan, Texas.

Dessler was an esteemed member of the scientific community and had a long and distinguished career in space science. Among his awards was the Arctowski Medal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, with the citation “For his notable imagination in framing many of space sciences most basic conceptions about the solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field and their interactions with the magnetospheres of Earth and other planets at the beginning of the Space Age.”

Dessler received a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1952 and a Ph.D. in Physics from Duke University in 1956. He began his career at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company. In 1963, while at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, now the University of Texas at Dallas, he was recruited by Rice University president Kenneth S. Pitzer to found the world’s first university space science department as a response to President John F. Kennedy’s Moon speech, delivered at Rice on September 12, 1962. The Space Science Department at Rice was the first truly multidisciplinary department at the university, bringing together astronomy, atmospheric science space physics, planetary science, and atomic and molecular physics.

Dessler was an emeritus professor of Space Physics and Astronomy at Rice University, active from 1963 to 1992. During his years at Rice, he also served as the second president of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) from 1976 to 1981 and as chair of the USRA Council of Institutions from 1975 to 1976. During his tenure at USRA, he championed groundbreaking research in a wide range of space science disciplines. Dessler made lasting contributions to the study of the magnetic fields of the Sun, Earth, and other planets, and to the study of the “solar wind” of charged particles that stream from the Sun and dominate a region of space far beyond the orbit of Pluto. He introduced the concept of this Sun-dominated region of space and coined its name, “heliosphere.”

Dessler served three terms as chair of the Space Science Department and retired in 1992. His educational innovations included the use of Keller-method inquiry-based self-paced instruction starting in 1970, and he was instrumental in encouraging women and minorities to participate in science.

In 1993, Dessler was a Senior Research Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, until retiring from that position in 2007. He then served as an adjunct professor of Space Physics at Texas A&M University.

One of Dessler’s major contributions to USRA was the development of its organizational structure, moving the headquarters from Texas to the Washington, DC area and initiating the use of science councils for each program or institute. He also formed a task force on microgravity materials research, recommending that NASA begin research in this new field. After NASA implemented Dessler’s recommendation, he established a new USRA program in microgravity science in support of NASA Headquarters. USRA also began work in the atmospheric sciences during his tenure.

“Alex will be remembered for his unwavering dedication and tireless efforts to advance space science research,” said Dr. Jeffrey Isaacson, President and CEO of USRA. “His legacy is a testament to the numerous contributions he made to that field and to USRA.”

— Portions of text courtesy of USRA and Rice University