Max Richard Nagel

In Memoriam: Max Richard Nagel

May 23, 2007

Obituary/Memorium of Former Optical Society of America Member Dr. Max Richard Nagel, PhD

Born December 15, 1909, Bautzen, Germany

Former Optical Society of America member and noted physicist Dr. Max R. Nagel died peacefully, pen and writing pad in hand, on May 23, 2007 at the venerable age of 97. Dr. Nagel was considered one of the world’s leading scientists in advancing the measurement of natural “background” infrared radiation (i.e., radiation from the ground and sky), which was essential in the development of systems to detect and monitor space and military objects, including camouflaged and “stealth” satellites, missiles and aircraft. During his career Dr. Nagel wrote or co-authored six books and over 100 professional publications, including several that have been published through the Optical Society of America.

Upon earning his doctorate in 1939 from the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, and his post-graduate “habilitatus” in 1942 from the Technical University of Berlin, Dr. Nagel joined the Institute for Aerial Photography at the German Aeronautical Research Facility in Berlin. Recognizing his assiduous avoidance of the Nazi regime, after the war the Allied authorities immediately cleared Dr. Nagel to continue his scientific endeavors.

Based on publications attributed to him and his work, in 1949 Dr. Nagel was appointed as a technical consultant to, and ultimately development engineer in the Sensitometry Section of the Photographic Reconnaissance Laboratory of the Wright Air Development Center, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. In 1954 Dr. Nagel transferred to the Infrared Section of the Aerial Reconnaissance Laboratory of the Wright Air Development Center. While there he planned, initiated, and directed a major scientific study that was conducted on and around Pikes Peak, Colorado involving nearly 200 scientific and support personnel from all three branches of the armed services. This project, designated the Infrared Radiation Measurement Program 1956 (IRMP 1956), led to IRMP 1958 and IRMP 1959/60.

The success of the IRMP projects drew the attention of, among many others, the scientific advisor to President Dwight Eisenhower. At his recommendation Dr. Nagel was honored with the government’s Sustained Superior Performance Award. His work was also recognized through promotions to the position of Chief, Thermal Radiation Laboratory of the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories in Bedford, Massachusetts, Scientific Advisor with the NATO-SHAPE Air Defense Technical Center in The Hague, Netherlands, and Acting Chief of the Space Optics Laboratory, Electronics Research Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

With the closure of the Electronics Research Center by President Richard Nixon following the United States’ successful moon landing in 1969, Dr. Nagel accepted a position as senior scientist with the German equivalent of NASA, a position he retained until his retirement in 1977. He remained in Germany following retirement, living first near Munich, Bavaria from 1970 to 2004 and then in a retirement and assisted living facility in Bonn to the day of his death.

Dr. Nagel’s professional interest in the detection of light and optical phenomena was merely an extension of his love of nature. A hiker and mountaineer, during his youth he completed several first ascents of challenging rock faces in his native Germany and Austria. He was also an accomplished cinematographer and photographer. Before having met her personally, Dr. Nagel captured his wife, Angelika von Braun, on film during her traverse of the high alpine peaks of Austria in the summer of 1939. She and second wife Siglinde Jobst shared his love of photography, mountains and the wonders of the natural environment.

Predeceased in 1979 by Angelika von Braun, he is survived by his second wife, Siglinde Jobst. Survivors also include sons Michael of London, England with spouse Adriana, Stefan of Winchester, Massachusetts with spouse Nancy, grandchild Kirsten, and numerous relatives. Dr. Nagel will be missed by his family, his surviving friends, and his former colleagues.