The global aerospace community and students across the Northwest have lost a researcher, mentor and “Rocket Man” who inspired and guided thousands of young people toward careers in the stars.
That’s what colleagues and friends of the late University of Washington Professor Robert Winglee said during a virtual memorial service held last weekend.
“The community has lost not only a strong researcher but also an architect of experiences,” said Jonathan Wrobel, a research engineer at Lockheed Martin who worked as a graduate student under Winglee. “Robert instilled a positive trajectory on so many careers and lives, and made the world a better place by it.”
Winglee, former chairman of UW’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences and current director of Washington’s NASA Space Grant Consortium, died after suffering a heart attack on Christmas Eve. He was 62.
He is survived by his wife, Jenny, and two children, Kathryn and Matthew.
Winglee was born in Australia to Chinese-Australian parents, who from an early age instilled a drive for science learning, his brother, Peter Winglee said. But the family “also encouraged our exploration of the practical side of physics and chemistry,” Peter Winglee said “So naturally we explored projectiles and their propellants.”
Winglee attended the University of Sydney, where he earned a bachelor’s degree (with honors) and PhD. in physics. After graduation, Robert and Jenny Winglee moved to the United States in 1984. In 1991 he joined the UW, where he taught and studied space plasma physics and propulsion systems.
He was a science innovator. He developed the “Penetrators” – described as a “space harpoon” that could be fired into an asteroid or moon, crashing through the surface to collect samples, then recovered via a long line. He also led graduate students who developed Husky Sat 1, a technology demonstrator satellite launched into space in November 2019.
Winglee also was a skilled university administrator, colleagues said. He served a decade as chairman of the Earth and Space Sciences Department and fought for his programs during the steep cuts that followed the Great Recession, UW Astrobiology professor Roger Buick added. “I don’t know how he did it but he managed to keep things stable at a time when many other departments were shrinking dramatically.”
He had a knack for inspiring others. “He was like our Captain Picard,” said Irene Svete, a public information officer at UW. “An opportunity would appear on our horizon and he’d point at it as if to say ‘Make it so, Number One.’ ”
But it was Winglee’s mentorship to his graduate students – and to high school students in underserved communities across the Northwest – that most of his colleagues remember.
“Trying to make a career out of science is all about mentorship,” said Darci Snowden, an assistant professor of physics at Central Washington University, who was one of Winglee’s grad students. “Robert reintroduced me to the joy of science, launching rockets and balloons and playing with robots.”
Winglee led student expeditions to launch rockets and weather balloons to places ranging from Moses Lake to the Australian Outback. He believed that being a science professor was not just about publishing papers, but “getting students excited about STEM,” Snowden said. “We will see his impact in the next generation of scientists and engineers.”
Many of those he reached were high school students. Winglee conceived the Northwest Earth and Space Science Pipeline, a NASA-funded group that brings STEM education to traditionally underserved teens.
It was “a radical idea,” said Melissa Edwards, director of digital learning at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. Winglee proposed “colleges, museums and K-12 educational partners across three states could work in tandem to deliver NASA-centric content to students.”
And it worked, said Terrell Andrews, a Yakama Nation member who is a high school student in White Swan, Wash. “He encouraged us to do more, doing stuff that his (college) students were doing, but at the high school level.”
Winglee “dedicated his life to students seeking STEM careers,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, in a letter read during the memorial. Winglee’s efforts strengthened NASA’s workforce and will help get the United States get back to the moon, he added. “I will forever be grateful to the Rocket Man, his service to NASA and to the thousands of students he reached through his work.”