Bruce C. Murray

Bruce C. Murray led JPL from 1976 to 1982. He was a strong proponent of planetary exploration. (NASA / JPL / Caltech / August 29, 2013)

Bruce C. Murray, a planetary astronomer who joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1960 and went on to lead the lab 16 years later, died early Thursday at his home in Oceanside.

The cause of death was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, according to his longtime friend Charlene Anderson. He was 81.

Murray was a strong proponent of the scientific value of taking pictures of other planets, the better to learn about Earth. That was a minority view at the time he joined the lab, where missions to measure magnetic fields and particle concentrations were more in vogue.

“Pictures were considered a stunt,” said Louis Friedman, a founder and former executive director of the Planetary Society.

The JPL space photography legacy

Murray went on to play a key role in the Mariner 4 mission to Mars, the first to send back pictures from any planet.

It was just the beginning. Soon, taking pictures became a key part of planetary exploration.

The pictures did more than advance scientific knowledge of the solar system -- they made the other planets seem real and fascinating to the American public. That helped secure funding for JPL missions when successive presidential administrations attempted to shut it down as NASA focused on the space shuttle program.

Murray fought vigorously to maintain the program during his tenure as director of JPL in La Canada Flintridge, from 1976 to 1982.

He also joined with Friedman and astronomer Carl Sagan in 1979 to form the Planetary Society, which promotes the exploration of the solar system. Advocacy by that group is also thought to have helped the program survive.

Murray’s arguments in favor of planetary exploration were often blunt:

"We're sitting here watching the coffin being nailed shut, and what's inside is imagination and vision," he told Discover magazine in a 1981 interview. "I wasn't appointed director to preside over the dissolution of the U.S. space exploration program ... I'm not going to be squeezed down to nothing."

After leaving JPL,  Murray returned to Caltech’s geological and planetary sciences department, where he was a professor emeritus at the time of his death.

He was author or co-author of six books and more than 130 scientific papers. He received NASA’s exceptional scientific achievement medal in 1971 and its distinguished public service medal in 1974.

Asteroid 4957 Brucemurray is named after him.

He is survived by his wife, the former Suzanne Moss, five children and grandchildren.

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