UW space scientist Robert Winglee and a student prepare to launch a bottle rocket. As part of the new effort, more teachers will be trained to do rocketry demonstrations.
Washington NASA Space Grant
UW space scientist Robert Winglee and a student prepare to launch a bottle rocket. As part of the new effort, more teachers will be trained to do rocketry demonstrations.

Robert Winglee, professor of Earth & Space Sciences, passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 24, 2020, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 62. His nearly 30-year UW career spanned research in space plasma physics, magnetospheric physics, advanced propulsion and engineering, as well as educational outreach to underserved and underrepresented communities across the country.

Professor Winglee completed his undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Sydney in Australia, earning his Doctorate in Physics in 1985. After postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado at Boulder and appointments at University of California, Los Angeles, UC Boulder, and the Southwest Research Institute, he joined the UW faculty in 1991, in what was then known as the Geophysics Program.

Throughout his career, Winglee promoted the integration of different strands of academic fields to further research in physics. He served as chair of the UW Department of Earth & Space Sciences (ESS) from 2005 to 2015, and also held adjunct appointments in the Department of Physics, the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics, and participating faculty in the UW Astrobiology Program.

In addition to research, Professor Winglee was a devoted teacher who provided both theoretical education and practical experience. He was loved by his students for his attitude of always supporting them if they had an idea and a plan. He started a UW course in designing and building rockets in 2009, which included field trips to remote areas, particularly Black Rock, Nevada, for launches. These continue to be popular and have led many graduates to pursue careers in the space community.

More recently, Professor Winglee mentored a UW student team that designed and built a miniature satellite, called a CubeSat. It launched in 2019 and began orbiting Earth in January 2020. This was the first student-built satellite to be launched in Washington state. He also led summer exploration seminars to his native Australia, where he took numerous students into the Outback to study geology and biology. In 2005 he received the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence and was the 2014 UW Undergraduate Research Mentor of the Year. He graduated 20 Ph.D. students, as well as numerous masters and undergraduate students.

“Robert’s passing is a tremendous loss to our department, and our entire University,” said Eric Steig, professor and current chair of the Department of Earth & Space Sciences. “Robert’s influence on the curriculum in our department — especially the popular physics track in our undergraduate major — cannot be overstated.”

Winglee became director of the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium in 2007. In 2016 he established the NASA-sponsored Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline, which he also directed to bring STEM outreach to underserved communities. He made STEM more approachable to students by emphasizing that anyone can be a scientist.

The outreach efforts included balloon and rocket launches, microscope observations, observations of the surroundings, and maintaining logbooks. For example, during the solar eclipse in August 2017, Winglee facilitated a balloon launch with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon to obtain a high-altitude perspective of the eclipse.

In 2019, for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, he developed a moon-themed robotics challenge for hundreds of middle and high school students from across the country, with a grand prize trip to the NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. He continued to design student competitions with the ROADS on Mars challenge in 2020, which he adapted from in-person to online during the pandemic.

Read more at the Earth and Space Sciences site »