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Arthur Pejsa

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Obituary: Arthur Pejsa, 90, pioneer rocket scientist

  • Article by: Tim Harlow
  • Star Tribune
  • February 19, 2014 - 12:23 PM

Arthur Pejsa never had the desire to go to outer space, but his contributions to the aerospace industry allowed scores of astronauts to get there and back safely.

Pejsa headed the system design and analysis group for the Thor missile, the world’s first long-range inertial guidance system. He analyzed the control systems for the early Apollo missions. Later he designed the difficult re-entry guidance system for the space shuttle, which allowed the vehicle to return to earth in the form of an airplane.

“That was what he was most proud of,” said his wife, Jane, an award-winning historian of Minneapolis.

Pejsa, of Minneapolis, died Feb. 8 of congestive heart failure at Waverly Gardens, an assisted living facility in North Oaks where he had been living in recent weeks. He was 90.

Pejsa seemed destined for a career as an aerospace physicist. By the time he was 20 years old, the Custer, Wis., native had successfully completed 30 combat missions over Japan, China and India in a B-29 Superfortress bomber. He was awarded three Air Medals, a Presidential Citation and the Distinguished Flying Cross, an honor bestowed on an officer or enlisted member of the U.S. Armed Forces for exhibiting “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

After World War II, Pejsa graduated at the top of his class with a major in math and a minor in physics from the University of Wisconsin-­Stevens Point in 1947. He spent the next eight years teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., before heading to the private sector.

It was at AC Electronics Division of General Motors in Milwaukee that he helped launch the first long-range missile guidance systems for the Thor missile and the Titan II ICBM, which was later adopted for the submarine-launched Polaris nuclear missile.

His proudest accomplishment came in 1972 at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ annual conference at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., while he was working at Minneapolis-based Honeywell. Pejsa presented a paper and the complex formulas that he and his team devised to show how to get a vehicle back from outer space without burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“I had a sea of rocket scientists who would question me deeply,” Pejsa said in an interview eight years ago on a talk show that aired on the Minneapolis Cable Network. “When they crowded around, they congratulated us.”

Facsimiles of those equations are on display at UW-Stevens Point, where Pejsa endowed a scholarship fund for the next generation of aerospace scientists. Last year, the school named its observatory in his honor.

“A lot of men and women have gone into space. Art’s job was to bring them home and he did it well,” said Chancellor Bernie Patterson at the dedication ceremony. “Art’s work has affected the entire globe. Not many people have the opportunity to touch mankind like Art Pejsa has.”

Pejsa also was a visiting professor at Augsburg College. He was recognized as an expert in small arms ballistics. He published several papers in scientific journals and wrote three books, including one published in 2008.

Pejsa was also a master bridge player and published books on that topic, too, his wife said.

“In bridge, it helps to have a good memory, and he had a phenomenal memory,” Jane said. “He was my encyclopedia. Ask him a question on history, science, politics, even literature, he’d know the answer. He had a memory that would not quit, and he was sharp to the end.”

Besides his wife, Pejsa is survived by children, James, of Menomonie, Wis., Arthur (Jack) Jr., of Grants, N.M. Anita Johnston, of White Salmon, Wash., Isle Gayl, of Boulder, Colo., and Franz Gayl, of Virginia.

Services have been held.

© 2014 Star Tribune