Morris Rosenthal
Morris Rosenthal

Rocket science pioneer Morris Rosenthal dies at 97 in Santa Rosa

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Space-age pioneer Morris Rosenthal died Dec. 13 in Santa Rosa. He was 97.

One of America’s most influential rocket scientists, Rosenthal contributed to the launch of the U.S. space program. He held key research and development positions in the US Navy and US Air Force, as well as at several California aerospace companies including Hughes, Lockheed and TRW, and held more than 20 patents.  He played an important role in making the first flights to the moon and Mars a reality; his technologies were used on the Apollo lunar module lander, the space shuttle programs and the Hubble Space Telescope, which revolutionized our understanding of the expanding universe.

Rosenthal helped send explorers into space. Among his friends were astronauts such as Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Alan Shepard. He was a confidant of the first Jewish admiral, Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear submarine, and the two men shared an outlook: Bureaucracy and stupidity are synonymous.

As a young scientist, Rosenthal ate cheese sandwiches with Albert Einstein in his Princeton office. They discussed physics and their shared love of Israel and Judaism. “Look at the stars and really think,” Einstein advised Rosenthal. “The universe has a mysterious order, which we don’t understand. But the more I study science, the more I believe in God.”

Born in 1924 to Romanian immigrants, Rosenthal was raised in Brooklyn. During World War II, he volunteered as a paratrooper, and while in training, his parachute didn’t open on one run. Breaking his back ended up saving his life, as most of his fellow paratroopers died during D-Day in 1944. Rosenthal went on to work for the Manhattan Project while studying at Brooklyn Polytechnic University.

While working in Midland, Texas, Rosenthal frequently played poker with oilman and future president George H. Bush in the Scharbauer Hotel. With the support of Lyndon Baines Johnson, another future president from Texas, Rosenthal was involved in smuggling arms to Jewish fighters in pre-state Israel.

After Midland, Rosenthal moved to El Paso, Texas. At Congregation B’nai Zion, it was love at first dance with Elinor, who became his wife of 73 years.

Nearby at Fort Bliss and White Sands Proving Ground (now known as the White Sands Missile Range), Rosenthal did covert rocket work with Wernher von Braun, a chief rocket scientist in Hitler’s Germany. In 1945, the United States’ secret intelligence program, Operation Paperclip, brought von Braun and 117 other Nazi rocketeers to El Paso, out of reach of the Soviet Union.

The only Jew working closely with former Nazi scientists, Rosenthal described von Braun as “arrogant, ambitious and morally multifaceted.” Rosenthal reported a few of the scientists as unrepentant Nazi war criminal to U.S. and European authorities.

Rosenthal’s career continued to accelerate. He played a vital part in U.S. missile defense systems such as Titan, Minuteman, Nike Ajax and Poseidon.

He went on to become a key developer of ultra-secret spacecraft that monitored Soviet missile tests, Chinese nuclear weapons facilities, North Korean radar installations and Middle Eastern terrorists training camps. The mechanical ears of these spacecraft eavesdropped on enemy military communications, including conversations in the Kremlin.

The high-resolution satellite program, codenamed Hexagon, may have been Rosenthal’s most important contribution to U.S. defense. Used for monitoring arms control, these remote sensing systems have been uncovering enemy weapon production and deterring surprise attacks by tracking weapons movements from Russia to Iran.

“I honestly think that the Hexagon program was responsible for preventing World War III,” said Phil Pressel, a Hexagon camera designer.

Inspired by his mentor Einstein, Rosenthal had a motto for ingenuity: “It’s not about thinking outside the box. It’s about realizing there is no box.”

He did, however, have boxes of memorabilia — though all were destroyed in the 1991 Oakland and 2017 Santa Rosa fires.

A long-time docent at the Magnes museum, Rosenthal was an educator who taught Jewish and non-Jewish groups throughout the Bay Area. He leaves a wife, Elinor; children Donna (a journalist, author and J. board member), Justin and Debra; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Donations in his memory may be sent to J. the Jewish News of Northern California.

Nadine Joseph
Nadine Joseph

Nadine Joseph is a writer and former journalist living in Berkeley. She is a member of J.’s board of directors.