Join US for a Celebration of Life 8/26/2023

White man with blond short curly hair and a mustache, wearing glasses. He is wearing a blue flight suit with a few patches on it.

Michael Logan Lampton, University of California Berkeley scientist, astronaut, inventor, entrepreneur, and beloved husband and father, passed away surrounded by loved ones on June 9, 2023 in Oakland, CA at the age of 82 years old. He is survived by his wife, Susan Lea, and daughter Jennifer Lea (Nathan) Lampton. 

Michael was born March 1st, 1941 in Williamsport, PA, to Glen Trice Lampton and Anna Mae Silverman. He attended Verde Valley High School in Sedona, Arizona, one of the few International Baccalaureate boarding schools in the United States. At Verde Valley, he helped construct the campus chapel, a gorgeous adobe structure overlooking Cathedral Rock. After high school, Michael earned a Bachelor’s Degree of Science in Physics at California Institute of Technology in 1962. During his tenure at Caltech, Michael participated in one of the greatest pranks in college football history, known as the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961. As a member of the “Fiendish Fourteen”, Michael and his co-conspirators managed to pull off an elaborate scheme to trick University of Washington fans into holding up placards that spelled out “CALTECH” instead of Huskies on live television. Caltech’s football team was not the rival team; they were not even a participant in the game. 

After graduating Caltech, Michael enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley, where he completed a PhD in Physics in 1967 under advisor Kinsey Anderson, an internationally recognized leader and pioneer in the field of space physics. Michael’s thesis involved launching rockets in Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to observe electrons that contribute to the aurora borealis (or Northern Lights). These electrons originate in the sun and are brought to the earth by the solar wind. Michael’s thesis investigated time variations in the electron distribution and their relation to plasma waves in the Earth’s magnetosphere. While in Fort Churchill he also had numerous exciting encounters with polar bears. 

Michael’s passion for space fueled an illustrious and lifelong career; in fact, he was designing space optics up until his untimely death. In 1967, Michael began his work at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab (SSL), where he worked for fifty-four years. 

During his tenure at SSL, he would file numerous patents and author over 350 papers. Michael was UC Berkeley’s first rocket scientist (though he is quick to admit that he was working on the nose cone, not the ignition source). 

In 1977, Michael was selected for the honor of becoming a NASA Payload Specialist. This NASA program trained scientists, researchers, teachers, and other civilians to carry out scientific experiments in space. He served as a backup payload specialist to his good friend Byron K. Lichtenburg for mission STS-9, or Spacelab 1, in 1983. He was selected to be the active payload specialist for missions STS-51-H, STS-61-K and STS-45. 1985-1989. Unfortunately, Michael was never able to make it into space. 

Several of his intended missions were canceled or postponed for various reasons, and Michael became gravely ill with cancer prior to the launch of his final mission. Despite not being able to make it into orbit, Michael recovered from cancer after several bouts of chemotherapy, and eventually a self-bone-marrow transplant. He was able to serve as Capcom, or the central point of communication between the astronauts and Mission Control, for STS-45. 

During his long career collaborating with NASA, he assisted on missions such as EUVE (Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer) and FAUST (Far Ultraviolet Space Telescope). He also partnered with the Department of Energy to observe and measure dark matter in projects such as the Dark 

Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), and the Supernova Acceleration Probe (SNAP). He also participated in UC Berkeley’s research project, Fire Urgency Estimator in Geostationary Orbit (FUEGO), an initiative to observe the western United States from space in order to identify and track wildfires. 

In parallel to his career as a space scientist, Michael also founded a software company in 1985 called Stellar Software, where he sold optical ray tracing software that was based on the calculations he used in his various NASA projects. In 2015, he decided to release the software as open source, making it available for public download, for free. 

Michael also published extensively in the field of audio and designed loudspeakers and amplifiers. After his official retirement, he continued to design and build new audio devices. 

Michael was truly a Renaissance man: outside of his accomplishments in science, Michael was also a talented classical and flamenco guitarist who performed at several weddings for his friends. He also enjoyed snorkelling in Hawaii. Despite being uncomfortable around horses, he was an avid supporter of both Susan’s and Jen’s equestrian exploits. He even became the horse show announcer for schooling shows at Bottomley Farm. 

During his battle with cancer in 1990-1992, while unable to eat, Michael spent his time in the hospital collecting the food sections of the newspaper. When he was finally able to return home, he made each of the recipes. He emerged from his time of illness with an invigorated love for cooking and eating, often befriending whoever worked behind the fish counter to get the latest scoop on the freshest fish available. 

A memorial to celebrate Michael’s life and mourn his passing will be held at a future time. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you consider donating to any environmental group in Michael’s honor.

10 Responses

  1. I did not know Michael Lampton personally, but in the 1980s, while working at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow (USSR), I carefully studied his articles on the position-sensitive microchannel plate detectors that he invented and researched. It was really a pioneering development of a talented engineer-physicist.
    My condolences to Michael’s family and friends, as well as to his colleagues. This is a big loss for the World Science…

    Kamil Moldosanov,
    Senior Researcher at Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

  2. An excellent summary of the remarkable life and unique accomplishments of Michael Lampton. But above all, he was our very special and loyal friend for a lifetime! We will miss his upbeat humor, wit and optimism.

    Joyce & Jan de Vries

  3. I truly enjoyed working with Michael during the design of the DESI experiment. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of optics he had a wonderful dry sense of humor which made interacting with him a pleasure.
    His tenure as a Physics graduate student overlapped with mine, so we may have met in the past as a couple of 20-somethings, although neither of us recalled doing so.

  4. My late husband with with Mike for years ! So sorry for your loss! I’m sure they are talking physics up in heaven! My daughter, Bianca Leah was named after his wife , Susan Leah❤️

  5. Dr. Lea, Jen, and Nathan,

    I am deeply sorry to hear of your loss. I found this tribute page while searching for which space missions your husband/father worked on after a friend mentioned never having met a rocket scientist. It’s rare to have the opportunity to say you did indeed meet a rocket scientist. I am truly grateful for the times he so warmly welcomed me into your home. Although I am writing this months after his passing, I wish you all the best on the other side of this tremendous loss.

  6. So sorry to hear about Mike’s passing. I was a young engineer who learned from him all about the mysteries of charge amplifiers and MCP detector systems. Even though it was in the ’90s, I can remember like it was yesterday, sitting with him in a Chinese restaurant in Los Alamos after a long day in the lab working on a detector, having the most wonderful conversation with him. On the very computer I’m sitting at, I still have a directory named “Lampton” that has everything from his technical papers to his excellent chili recipe. He really was a wonderful person to be around. Ad Astra.

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