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Remembering Frederick Ira Ordway, III

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Frederick Ira Ordway, III

Frederick Ira Ordway, III. Credit: Apogee Books

Fred Ordway passed away in Huntsville, Alabama, on the morning of Tuesday July 1. We were friends for 40 years, but then I can’t think of anyone in the aerospace community with a wider circle of friends than Fred. We have a tradition at the Museum of honoring deceased aerospace leaders with a short obituary and photo posted near the information desk in our south lobby. My colleagues offered me the honor of preparing such a farewell for Fred.

Frederick Ira Ordway, III (April 4, 1927–July 1, 2014) helped to create the space age, chronicled its history, and shaped the way in which the public perceived the past, present, and future of travel beyond the atmosphere. A native New Yorker, he was educated in primary and secondary schools in Connecticut, New York, Maine, and Washington, D.C. “Like many space flight enthusiasts,” he once remarked, “my interest was first stimulated by science fiction magazines.” He was 11 when he began to devour science fiction, and 13 when he became the youngest member of the fledgling American Rocket Society.

Following service as a naval reserve officer during the closing months of World War II, Ordway entered Harvard University, graduating with a BS in 1949. He pursued graduate study at the University of Paris, and universities in Algiers, Barcelona, and Innsbruck. Initially employed as a mining and petroleum engineer in Latin America, he accepted a job with Reaction Motors, Inc., America’s pioneering rocket motor manufacturer, in 1951, then moved on to the Guided Missile Division of Republic Aviation. A 1955 meeting with space pioneer Wernher von Braun led to a lifelong friendship and a decision to join the von Braun team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Huntsville, Alabama, where he would eventually serve as Chief of the Space Information Systems Branch.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke advised Stanley Kubrick to bring Ordway on board as technical advisor for the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that role he developed basic concepts and detailed designs for the spacecraft featured in the movie. Returning to Huntsville in 1967, he joined the faculty of the University of Alabama. Seven years later he moved to Washington, D.C. and a consulting position with the National Science Foundation followed by service as Special Assistant to Robert C. Seamans, director of the Energy Research Development Agency (later the Department of Energy).

Fred Ordway was a prolific author, producing 30 books on space flight, some with co-author Wernher von Braun, and 250 articles. In addition to his contributions to the American Rocket Society (now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), he was an early member of the American Astronautical Society, and an editor of its Journal of Astronautics. The only American to attend the First international Astronautical Congress in Paris in 1950, he became an active participant in the activities of the International Astronautical Federation. He was a member, often a Fellow, of many of the world’s aerospace technical societies.

Ordway donated the collection of science fiction and pulp magazines he had begun as a youngster to Harvard University. His impressive library of books on the history of space flight went to the University of Alabama, Huntsville. A collection of space art, focusing on the work of Chesley Bonestell, formed the basis for his 1992 travelling exhibition, Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact. For those of us who knew him, and millions of space enthusiasts around the globe, the world will be a less interesting and entertaining place without Fred Ordway.

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.


One thought on “Remembering Frederick Ira Ordway, III

  1. Excellent article on our mutual friend Frederick Ordway!
    Thanks for sending it along.
    John Farmakides

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