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Stanley Schmidt Former NASA Ames Aerospace Engineer Dies

Status Report From: Ames Research Center
Posted: Sunday, October 25, 2015

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In 1959, even before President Kennedy had announced that we choose to go to the Moon, Stanley F. Schmidt was developing a midcourse navigation system needed for a space capsule on a circumlunar voyage. Stan then was chief of the dynamics analysis branch at NASA Ames when his former boss, Harry Goett, challenged him to do pioneering research in advance of the Apollo mission. High-speed computer processing was in its infancy, and processing vast amounts of data in real time accurately enough to direct a spacecraft to and from the Moon was a daunting challenge.

In a stroke of luck, mathematician Rudolf Kalman invited himself to Ames to present an abstract paper on an algorithm for linear quadratic estimation. Other electrical engineers had rejected Kalman's work, but as Stan read the paper, he realized Kalman's method of filtering meaningful signals from varied observations could be integrated into Apollo's navigation system. The hitch was that Kalman's had developed a linear model and Apollo needed a nonlinear filter.

Stan worked out a nonlinear adaptation which reduced the computational complexity of the problem (now called the Schmidt-Kalman filter), and by the following summer he and his team had developed the first practical application for this groundbreaking mathematical model. Stan continued to cooperate on scientific work that made this method a key part of all aerospace navigation, and made it a standard tool for estimation problems in many fields today, including biology, medicine, oil exploration, traffic engineering, robotics and power plant control. He is widely credited with developing the first applications of this filter and wrote and lectured extensively about it all over the world. He helped teach a new generation to carry this important technique forward.

Stan Schmidt, the future aerospace pioneer, grew up without electricity on a San Benito County ranch settled by his grandparents in 1878 near Pinnacles National Park. After joining the Navy Air Corps, he was sent to Marquette University and graduated with an electrical engineering degree. He joined the NACA Ames Laboratory in 1946 and while at Ames he completed masters and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Stanford University.

He started in the electrical branch, rigging Ames' state of the art wind tunnels, and in 1953 he moved into the instrument development branch. Stan left Ames in 1961 but continued his affiliation with NASA. In 1961, he joined with Lockheed Missiles & Space Company as a senior staff engineer on military and NASA projects. In 1962, he joined Philco Space and Systems Division working on military aerospace and NASA projects.

From 1966 to 1992, Stan was vice president and director of the Western Office of Analytical Mechanics Associates (AMA). AMA contributed to such NASA missions as the Hyper-X, International Space Station, and the vehicles used in the Mars exploration program. From 1992 to 2001, Stan was a consultant to Northrop in the development of the B2 stealth bomber navigation system. Among his many awards, in 1981 Stan received the IEEE Award for Outstanding Achievement in Control Engineering.

In retirement, his ties to Ames remained strong. He met his future wife, Meredith Hallenbeck, when both worked at Ames. His son Gregory works in the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, and his daughter in law Cynthia Schmidt works in Earth Sciences. He also is survived by his son Rick and daughter Janis and their spouses, and five grandchildren. Stan died on Aug. 13, 2015 in Los Altos, California.

A Celebration of Life will be held on Nov. 21 at 10:30 a.m. at Michael's on Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View.

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