Environment & Science

Bruce Murray, co-founder of the Planetary Society and former JPL director, dies at 81

From left to right: Bruce Murray, Carl Sagan (seated) with Louis Friedman and Harry Ashmore (standing).
From left to right: Bruce Murray, Carl Sagan (seated) with Louis Friedman and Harry Ashmore (standing).
From left to right: Bruce Murray, Carl Sagan (seated) with Louis Friedman and Harry Ashmore (standing).
Bruce Murray died August 29th, 2013.
NASA / JPL - Cal Tech

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Bruce Murray, a former head of Jet Propulsion Laboratory who co-founded the Planetary Society with Carl Sagan and Louis Friedman, died early Thursday morning after suffering complications from Alzheimer's disease.  He was 81.

Growing up in Santa Monica, Murray loved reading the adventures Captain James Cook. That 18th-century explorer charted distant corners of the globe.

Throughout his life, Murray brought that same sense of adventure to the entire solar system, said long-time friend Louis Friedman.

He would often say, “it’s not just science, it’s exploration,” Friedman said.

Snapshots from the Solar System

The two worked together at JPL, where Murray pushed NASA to get visual images of other planets even though the idea was unpopular with some.

"There were a lot of scientists who pooh-poohed the idea of taking images of other worlds," said Friedman. "That's tourist stuff, that's a stunt."

Ultimately, Murray's persistence won out. 

"Can you imagine now planetary missions without the great images that we have?" Friedman said. He says Murray and his collaborators at JPL were largely responsible for getting the space agency to value such pictures. Now they are standard practice.

Purple pigeons

From 1976 to 1982, Murray served as head of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. During that time, the space agency launched several high-profile missions, including the Mars Viking Lander and Voyager 1 and 2.

Blaine Baggett, director of communications with JPL, says Murray had a term he used to describe these sorts of headline-grabbing missions.

“Purple pigeons,” Baggett recalled. He says the fanciful name referred to the fact that these were projects that captured the imagination of the entire world.

JPL still uses the term today when talking about its achievements — like the 2012 landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Advocate for the planets

Despite many successes, JPL faced a shrinking budget during the time Murray was in charge. He fought hard to keep planetary missions alive and diversified the body of work the lab took on by including defense contracts and solar projects.

Ultimately though, Murray decided to take matters into his own hands by teaming up with astronomer Carl Sagan and Friedman to form the Planetary Society. The membership-based nonprofit began in 1979 with the goal of getting the public involved in space exploration.

Charlene Anderson worked with Murray during those days. She says his drive was crucial for getting the organization off the ground. Over the years, he used it to advocate for new and creative approaches to studying distant planets.

Murray published more than 130 scientific papers and co-authored seven books.  After leaving JPL in 1982, he taught at Caltech's Geological and Planetary Sciences Division, inspiring many future explorers.

He died in his home in Oceanside, California Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, surrounded by his family.

This story has been updated.