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View a eulogy for William Mason Kaula, USMA '48, who passed away on April 1, 2000.

William Mason Kaula

West Point, 1948

Be Thou At Peace

Posted by XXXXXX on May 20, 2008:

William M. Kaula ’48
16486 19 May 1926 – 1 Apr 2000
Died in Los Angeles, CA
Interred in Westwood Memorial Garden, Los Angeles, CA

William Mason Kaula was born in Australia but grew up in Somerville, MA, where he found schoolwork easy but socializing awkward. As a Plebe, Bill continued in his introspective adolescent ways, garnering a lot of demerits and a modest academic standing. At the beginning of Yearling year, he had the good fortune to be assigned Graham Kent as a roommate. Graham had trouble with his studies, so to help him, Bill started studying the night before class for the first time in his life. Bill’s grades shot up, and suddenly, he now had a way to compete. So Bill kept studying, even after Graham went off into the Class of ’47, and was a Star Man for his last three years, despite being near the bottom of the class in athletics and aptitude.

Bill entered the Corps of Engineers and, a year later, married a pretty French girl, Denise Bouché, which led to an assignment in Hanau, Germany. Two years in the Hanau Engineer Depot were rather desultory, but a year in the 4th Combat Engineers was quite stimulating. He applied to stay another year to command Company A. Months earlier, however, he’d chosen “Geodesy” for his master’s studies. Since no one else had, Bill was compelled to go to Ohio State. Upon arriving in Columbus in June 1952, Bill found that he was the first and only student in a new program with one faculty member. The instructor was an aged Finn who said he would not give lectures to only one student, so Bill wrote his own syllabus for weekly discussions. Because of that, Bill got a more comprehensive view of the subject. He also devised a thesis topic that led to his seeing a lot of the Ohio countryside.

In 1954, the geodetic label led to Bill being diverted at Camp Drake from “Korea guidance” to becoming project officer for the topographic survey of the island of New Britain, northeast of New Guinea. That proved to be his most satisfying military posting. It was a tri-racial, quadri-national command, 2,500 miles from his boss in Tokyo, and lasted one year. That spell of independence spoiled Bill, because two years later, when he was to be transferred to the 3rd Engineers at Ft. Benning, he decided to seek employment more satisfying to himself, as well as useful to the nation, in those days of the “missile gap.”

In November 1957, Bill resigned from the military to support five dependents on a GS-12 salary ($7,520/year) at the Army Map Service in Bethesda, MD. Upon his arrival, Bill was surprised to hear the question “What do you want to do?” from his boss, Dr. John O’Keefe. His immediate response was “Research on variations of the earth’s gravity field” that affected inertial guidance. He was further surprised to get the freedom to do it, with supporting personnel and computer. A year later, O’Keefe moved to NASA, leaving the AMS research supervision to Bill. In 1960, Bill moved to NASA to be Project Scientist for a geodetic satellite. The project, however, kept being postponed because of security objections, which left him free to do his own research.

After mastering satellite orbit dynamics, Bill’s interests turned in two directions — implications of the gravity field for the earth’s interior and applications of the dynamical techniques to the evolution of natural orbits. The void of talent in satellite geodesy made it easy for Bill to get papers published, and he regularly presented his results in the Journal of Geophysical Research and similar outlets — an average of about six papers per year for 40 years.

In 1963, this productivity led to a tenured professorship at University of Californa–Los Angeles. In partial compensation for never having earned a Ph.D., Bill wrote two books, Theory of Satellite Geodesy in 1966 and Introduction to Planetary Physics in 1968, which reflected an expansion of research interests to include the origin and evolution of the planets, especially Venus. In addition to teaching classes, Bill served UCLA as a department chair, and as Chair of the campus-wide Council of Academic Personnel. He frequently served NASA in geodynamics and planetary exploration as a team leader for the altimeter on Apollo 15, 16, and 17; a proposal reviewer; Chair of the Lunar and Planetary Review Panel; and a program adviser, as twice member of the NRC Space Science Board. His other principal association was with the American Geophysical Union as section president; journal editor; chair, or member of various committees; and candidate for its presidency.

In the mid-’80s, Bill took leave from UCLA to serve three years as chief of the National Geodetic Survey in Rockville, MD, then undergoing a major technical transition because of GPS. While on that tour, he was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. Within five years, however, he was one of the first beneficiaries of the now standard cure. After 1991, his principal health problem was squamous cell cancer in the scalp.

In 1987, Bill was elected to the National Academy of Sciences — the first election of a USMA graduate since 1919. Bill Kaula probably would not have gone to West Point were it not for WWII. However, he felt strongly that not only did he benefit greatly from the experience, but that it helped him serve our country very well in ways other than military.

Bill’s wife, Gene Hurley Kaula, and his three daughters survive him.

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