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Seven decades of science

Joachim Kuettner's remarkable life hits a new milestone: year 100

23 September 2009  •  When you've been studying the ways of the atmosphere since the 1930s, you have many tales to tell. Joachim Kuettner has been sharing his life stories, including some lesser-known ones, in a new round of oral and video histories. The catalyst is Kuettner's 100th birthday, which he celebrated with family and friends on 21 September. Kuettner's far-flung network of colleagues is preparing to pay him tribute as well. A special session in his honor, focusing on aviation and mountain waves, will take place in Atlanta on 19 January 2010 at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society. As the symposium announcement states, "Joach's extraordinarily broad scientific intellect and singular leadership qualities resulted in an amazingly diverse and important set of contributions to science worldwide."

Joachim KuettnerBorn and raised in Germany, Kuettner put his early interest in the atmosphere aside to complete a doctorate in law and economics at age 21. He worked in small-town courts and gazed at cumulus clouds while on the road. As Germany's legal and political structure deteriorated in the 1930s, Kuettner switched gears to earn a second doctorate, this time in meteorology. For his dissertation, he deployed 25 instrumented gliders to gather data on lee waves, the newly discovered features forming downwind of mountains. He also set an world altitude record for gliders, soaring without oxygen—and with numb feet and blue fingers—to 6,800 meters (22,300 feet). 

Kuettner flight-tested the world's largest airplane, the Gigant, during World War II, narrowly escaping death as the plane broke apart in flight and his parachute opened just 200 meters (660 feet) above ground. After the war, "I wanted to go to a mountaintop and be alone," Kuettner later recalled. He spent three years studying many atmospheric phenomena, including thunderstorm electricity, at the observatory atop the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany.

In the early 1950s, Kuettner came to the United States and joined the Sierra Wave Project as scientific field director, investigating lee waves in California (see photo below). Then, as the U.S. space program got under way, Kuettner became director of the Mercury Redstone project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which culminated in 1961 by putting the first American (Alan Shepard) into space. Kuettner also headed systems integration during the early stages of the Apollo project.

Joachim Kuettner at Sierra Wave ProjectJoachim Kuettner with the instrumented sailplane he flew during the 1955 Sierra Wave Project. (Photo by Harold Klieforth.)

Since 1969, Kuettner has coordinated and planned many international atmospheric field studies, including the landmark Global Atmospheric Research Program's Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE)—with more than 70 nations participating— in 1974; the Monsoon Experiment (MONEX) in 1979; and the Central Pacific Experiment (CEPEX) in 1992. In 1994, NSF awarded the UCAR Distinguished Chair for Atmospheric Science and International Research to Kuettner, a title he has held since.

From his home near Boulder, Kuettner continues to pay occasional visits to NCAR and UCAR and keeps up with research meaningful to him. As recently as 2005, he took part in the Terrain-induced Rotor Experiment (T-REX), which was set in the Sierra Nevada landscape he'd soared over more than a half-century earlier. Kuettner has attributed his sustained love of atmospheric research to two traits: "curiosity and joy of adventure. If you can preserve these two wonderful afflictions through your life, you will never be able to stop exploring the atmosphere."

More on Joach Kuettner's life and work:

A research veteran turns to HIAPER (April 2005, UCAR/NCAR Staff Notes)

In their own words: Joachim Kuettner (September 2000, UCAR at 40)

Celebration of a Renaissance Man: The Joachim Kuettner Symposium (November 1994, UCAR/NCAR Staff Notes)

The Bulletin Interviews: Dr. J. P. Kuettner (PDF file) (October 1989, WMO Bulletin, courtesy World Meteorological Organization)

Below:  Video clip (1:56), August 2009—Kuettner reflects on an unexpected detour after he arrived in the United States in the late 1940s to work at the Cambridge Research Laboratories with Philip Thompson, who later became the first associate director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).