Astronomy beckons

Robert Parker took his early education at local primary and secondary schools. It was in fourth grade that he says he first developed ''a determined desire'' to become an astronomer - long before there were any thoughts of a space programme. ''Astronauts were no more than a Flash Gordon movie then,'' he later reflected. His graduation from Shrewsbury's Beal High School took place on 16 June 1954.

Parker then continued his combined studies in astronomy and physics at Amherst College, where he also did some laboratory teaching in his junior and senior years, and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Among his college honours and scholarships, he achieved the distinction of Magna Cum Laude when graduating with his Bachelor of Arts degree in astronomy and physics on 8 June 1958, joining his grandfather on the alumni roll.21

His interest in science, and astrophysics in particular, certainly seemed to have its origins in being part of a science-oriented family. His father Allan was chairman of the physics department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, while his twin brother Peter taught physics at Yale. His younger brother, Allan Jr. (born in 1938), became a computer systems analyst in Boston.

Six days after graduating, Bob Parker married Joan Audrey Capers, a registered nurse from Waynesville, Pennsylvania, whom he had first met when they were both seniors in high school. They would have two children; Kimberly Ellen, born on 7 February 1962, and Brian David Capers Parker, born on 8 March 1964. He and Joan would eventually divorce in 1980 and Parker later married again, this time to Judy Woodruff of San Marino, California, who already had three children by a previous marriage.

After receiving his undergraduate degree from Amherst College, Parker continued his chosen career path in science by attending the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. At CalTech, he achieved many deserved distinctions, including: Woodrow Wilson Fellow 1958-9; Danforth Fellow 1958-62; Graduate Teaching Assistant 1959-60; National Science Foundation (NSF) Cooperative Fellow 1960-1 and 1961-2; Woodrow Wilson Summer Fellowship 1961; and NSF Summer

Fellowship 1962. In 1960, on an NSF travel grant, he also attended the NUFFIC (Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education) Summer Institute on Galactic Structure, held at Breukelen, near Utrecht in the Netherlands.

He received his Doctorate in astronomy from CalTech on 7 June 1963. His PhD dissertation, under the guidance of Professor Guido Munch, was entitled Physical Conditions in Some Possible Supernova Remnants.

From 1962 to 1963, Parker was an NSF post-doctoral fellow on the Madison campus of the acclaimed University of Wisconsin. He became an assistant professor of astronomy on the university's Badger faculty from October 1963 to 1967, and taught the introductory course in astronomy for non-majors, as well as other courses, including those at the graduate level. Quite often, more than two hundred students would attend his lecture sections.

Parker was also on the subcommittee of the Student Life and Interest Committee (SLIC), and for recreation on campus joined a group of faculty members working out at the old Armory Gym. He also ran two miles on the university track every other day.

For relaxation at the family home on Tomahawk Trail, he enjoyed nothing more than the simple pleasures of gardening. He also took great pride in building a stereo unit for his family, and loved tinkering under the bonnet of an old Triumph sports car he'd bought soon after he and Joan were married. Fond of many outdoor activities, he especially enjoyed ice-skating on Madison's frozen lakes in winter, and had once camped and hiked in the majestic Rockies.

By 1964, Parker was a full-time staff member of Washburn Observatory on the Madison campus, and that year he became a supervisor of Washburn's major research facility, in charge of the day-to-day operation of their country observatory at Pine Bluff - the chief research facility for university astronomers. Here, and up to the time of his astronaut selection, Parker became engaged in advanced astronomical research, specialising in interstellar matter - phenomena lying between the stars such as supernova and nova remnants, dust clouds, extragalactic H II regions, neutral hydrogen clouds, and planetary nebulae.

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