Photo of Martin Schwarzschild

Martin Schwarzschild

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For his seminal contributions to the theory of the evolution of stars, and his creative insights into galactic dynamics which form the basis of much of contemporary astrophysics; and his lifetime of dedication to students. His influence on U.S. astronomy in the second half of this Century is unsurpassed.

Before the 20th century, astronomers mainly observed the stars as pinpoints in our universe, studying their dynamics and motions in relation to other celestial entities. Through his revolutionary theories and methods on stellar structures, Martin Schwarzschild transformed not only the way we see stars, but also how we understand our universe.

Schwarzschild wanted to better understand the structure of stars but his telescopes were not close enough to capture the necessary detail. One day, while out to lunch with physicist James A. Van Allen, he was told that astronomers were too conservative and that for years, physicists have used hot air balloons in their studies. This gave Schwarzschild the inspiration for his most daring project.

In 1957, Schwarzschild launched Project Stratoscope, an undertaking aiming to run astronomical experiments through balloon-borne telescopes. He hoped the higher vantage point would produce better quality images for his studies.

That September, Schwarzschild and his team sent the telescope 81,000 feet above Earth. The resulting photos were of such quality that astronomers could glean information about the structure of stars. Project Stratosphere’s success enriched astronomers’ understanding of stars and paved the way for further probing of our universe using devices such as the Hubble telescope.

By Kristen Brida

Photo Courtesy of Princeton University and Prof. Schwarzchild