Richard Passman, Space-Age Engineer Who Kept His Secrets, Dies at 94

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

Richard Passman, an aeronautical engineer whose wide-ranging career took him through the early stages of supersonic flight, spy satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles, died on April 1 in Silver Spring, Md. He was 94.

The cause was complications of the new coronavirus, his son William said.

Mr. Passman was involved in crucial space-age projects, many of them secret — unlike the work of the civilian space program, which made public figures of those who blasted into space and some of those whose work got them there, Dwayne A. Day, a space historian, said.

“There was a classified space program and there were people equally smart,” Mr. Day said, “and yet we don’t know their names.”

Richard A. Passman was born on June 30, 1925, in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on Long Island, to Matthew and Ethel Passman. (The middle initial didn’t stand for anything, his son William said.) His father co-owned an insurance company, and his mother was a homemaker.

At the University of Michigan, he earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1944, a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1946 and a master’s in aeronautical engineering in 1947.

He joined Bell Aircraft as the company was creating the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 1 (about 770 miles per hour). He served as chief aerodynamicist on its successor, the X-2, which reached Mach 3. He was aircraft designer for Bell’s X-16, a spy plane, but the government instead chose Lockheed’s U-2.

He then moved from Bell to General Electric, and raised his horizons from aircraft to spacecraft. He was a manager in a part of the company responsible for creating systems that allowed objects sent plunging through the atmosphere to withstand the blazing heat of re-entry.

There was the Corona, the first spy satellite: The orbiter took high-resolution photographs and ejected the film in a heat-shielding “bucket.” The container re-entered the atmosphere, deployed a parachute and was snagged out of the air by military aircraft. G.E. was responsible for the bucket.

He also helped lead efforts to create heat shielding technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles and multiple-warhead missiles. He continued to work on projects for the space program; he was G.E.’s general manager for space activities and was developing the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, an Air Force project that would have put a manned spy satellite into orbit, when it was canceled during the Nixon administration.

Bill Passman said that he knew very little of his father’s secret work; the Corona system wasn’t declassified until 1995. “These guys could keep a secret,” he said. “They were old school.”

In addition to his son William, Mr. Passman is survived by his wife of 70 years, Minna (Hocky) Passman; two other sons, Henry and Don; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. and Mrs. Passman were living in a retirement community in Florida when the coronavirus began its spread. Their family, based in the Washington area, persuaded them to relocate to a retirement home closer to them, in Silver Spring, on March 15.

“They locked it down the same day,” Bill Passman said. Two weeks later, his father was dead. The family held a virtual shiva via Zoom.

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