Richard (Dick) Passman died on April 1, 2020, in Silver Spring, Maryland.. He was 94 years old. He was predeceased by sister, Lenore (Passman) Davis in 2012. He leaves his wife of 70 years, Minna, 3 sons and their spouses, Henry Passman and wife Nancy, Don Passman and wife Bonnie and Bill Passman and wife Emily, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. Mr. Passman was a talented aerospace engineer and engineering manager and was a great lover of family, travel, and golf, which he played extensively during his life and in retirement.
His aerospace career put him at the center of many of the great modern achievements in the U.S. While a student at the University of Michigan, he joined the Navy Pilot Training program after WWII broke out. A medical issue brought him back to Michigan to complete his Bachelor and Masters in Aeronautical Engineering there. His knowledge of aerodynamics led him to Bell Aircraft, in Buffalo, NY, where he worked on the Bell-X1, which became the first plane to break the speed of sound (mach-1). He then became the Chief Aerodynamicist for the Bell X-2, which broke both altitude records and speed records, becoming the first plane to break mach-3 (3 times the speed of sound) and bring pilots to the edge of space. As the cold war unfolded Bell started a high altitude reconnaissance plane called the X-16. Mr. Passman was the aircraft designer and won the production contract for this super-secret plane, but none were built due to the CIA later choosing the U-2 for this role. With this experience he then joined GE Reentry Systems in Philadelphia, to work on the the Corona spy satellite. This was the first spy satellite, which took high-resolution photos of the USSR, then ejected the film cannister to re-enter the atmosphere to be plucked in mid-air while parachuting down to earth. Ultimately Corona provided much U.S. intelligence, including data on actual Soviet nuclear capabilities to help President Kennedy make seemingly risky decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He and GE also developed reentry systems for the nation’s ICBM program, which were the backbone of the country’s defense system for the next 50 years.
GE then opened their Missile and Space Division, in Valley Forge, PA, which worked on many more civilian space projects including for Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. He and Minna were invited guests to watch Apollo 11 launch to the moon and greet the astronauts in Houston upon their return.. During this time he became the General Manager of the MOL, a multibillion dollar Manned Orbiting Laboratory project. It was half complete when President Nixon cancelled it for national budget reasons and perceived overlap with the Skylab Space Station. This led to his managing projects at GE including Nimbus weather satellites, LANDST crop monitoring satellites, mobile telephones and commercializing the first projector TV system.
After moving to Bethesda, Maryland in 1974 for GE, he joined the Department of Energy as Deputy Director in charge of a U.S. version of France’s successful Breeder Reactor, The LMFBR. After design work and some production, President Carter cancelled this, and Mr. Passman worked on other alternative energy projects for DOE. He returned to aerospace a few years later, rounding out his career at Grumman Aerospace, where he used his extensive experience in developing space systems and the MOL space station to help guide redesigns of the ISS, International Space Station, as congressional budgets demanded.
Dick Passman was born in Lindhurst, NY in 1925 to Matthew and Ethel Passman. His grandfather, Henry Passman escaped from pogroms in Lithuania in the 1890’s and became a sign painter in New York. Dick excelled in school, skipped some grades and was accepted at Michigan at age 15. In addition to his studies at Michigan he was also a baseball pitcher. In 1949 he met Minna, who is one of a triplet, while visiting New York City. They married soon after, and started their family in Buffalo before moving to suburban Philadelphia. Marrying triplets, with an older sister meant many nieces and nephews around the same age, which were and still are like one very large family.
In retirement he enjoyed volunteering at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. He worked on various projects, including a showcase focused on Aerodynamics. He always had great admiration for the test pilots, who had unmatched dedication to getting America air superiority and often gave their lives in these efforts. His work at the Smithsonian culminated with publishing a book, “X15: The World’s Fastest Rocket Plane and the Pilots Who Ushered In The Space Age” co-authored with John Anderson, with a chapter on each of its test pilots.
After retirement he refocused his skills at personal connections on his family. He lit up with the visits of his children, their spouses and grandchildren, Leo, Rachel, Leah and Mark, Natalie and Danny, Zack and Karina, Adam, Jeffrey and Natalie, and Danielle and Brendon, and great-grandchildren Teddy, Oscar, Merrick, Bennett, Guillermo, Hilda, Annabelle and Bradley.
He and Minna wintered at The Villages, in Florida, eventually moving there full time, playing lots of golf and relaxing. Dick loved reading biographies, playing the piano, baking bread (many loaves which he gave away to friends) and wrote about his life in a series of “status notes” which he emailed to his children. He had a kind, quiet demeanor and was always interested in others.
Minna and Dick had only recently returned to Silver Spring, Maryland, to be closer to family, when the lockdowns and disease exacerbated existing issues.
Contributions in his honor can be made to the National Air and Space Museum. At support.si.edu/support