Kurt Richard Stehling

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Kurt Stehling
Kurt R. Stehling circa 1968
Birth Name Kurt Richard Stehling
Birth Date 1920
Birth Place Giesen Germany
Date of Death Mar 18 1997
Place of Death USA
Occupation Engineer
Nationality German, Canadian, United States
Notable Works Earth Scanning Techniques for Orbital Rocket Vehicles


Early Life and Education

Kurt Stehling was raised in Giesen Germany where he was witness to many of the early Zeppelin flights of the 1920s. In late 1929 his family emigrated to Canada. Stehling would attend Toronto Central Technical High School in 1934 and he would build a methane and oxygen rocket in the school biology laboratory. He created his own Rocket and Space Study Club and graduated as part of the class of 1938. In 1940-41 he studied Applied Science at University of Toronto. In January 1943 he won a prize for his paper "Underground Gasification of Coal" from the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC) while still a member of the U of T Engineering Society. he joined the Royal Astronomical Society in January of 1946 and in November 1946 he delivered a paper to the EIC entitled "Development of Atomic Energy". He was elected to Student office at U of T in 1947. In 1948 he earned his BA and won the John Galbraith Prize for his paper "Rocket Propulsion".

World War II

From 1943 to 1945 Stehling returned to Europe in uniform, to fight as part of the Canadian Armoured Corps. He witnessed the onslaught of the V2 rockets as they fell on London and he was later injured in Holland. He then served in the Canadian Repatriation Depot after the war before returning to Toronto in August 1946.

Canadian Rocket Society

After the war he became president and founder of The University of Toronto Rocket Society. In January 1948 he publicly debated senior members of the Canadian astronomy community about the promise of space flight and suggested that with its wide open spaces Canada should become a leader in long-range rocket experiments. In June 1948 in front of a gathering of 100 attendees at the Royal Ontario Museum Stehling outlined the aims of the society. Stehling stated, "We are interested in the peacetime use of rockets, not their development for war. We hope to interest the public not only in the mechanical side of rockets but in their social and economic significance."

Kurt Stehling ca. 1948

Move to United States

Stehling married a girl from Buffalo New York in 1944, in April 1948 he gained resident status in the USA. In 1949 he found work with the Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation in Buffalo NY and studied for his MA in physics at University of Buffalo. He then worked at the American Optical Company in Buffalo working on the development and improvement of optical instruments. In May 1950 he joined the Bell Aircraft Corporation where he remained until 1953 in a position with their rocket division. In 1951 Stehling wrote to James van Allen and encouraged him to pursue the use of balloons to launch a rocket into space.

Reaction Control systems

Stehling co-authored a patent at Bell, with rocket backpack pioneer Wendell Moore, for the reaction control system which later appeared on the X-15 and would ultimately evolve into the system on the Space Shuttle.

Radar satellites

In 1953, while on short leave from Bell Aircraft, at the James Forrestal Research Center in Princeton New Jersey, Stehling published a paper in which he described the advantages of using space-borne radar to "paint the surface of the Earth" and transmit the data back to the ground for study. Stehling delivered his paper, entitled Earth Scanning Techniques for Orbital Rocket Vehicles, on January 26th 1953 at a technical session of the American Rocket Society in New York. He compared both optical and microwave systems, concluding that the optical systems at that time had the weight and resolving power advantage, but the microwave radar system didn't rely on daylight or good weather. His white paper would ultimately lead to the NASA satellite known as Seasat which used radar altimetry and Synthetic Aperture Radar for monitoring ocean currents and resources. This was a subject already of keen interest to Canada and the United States. Mapping the high arctic in detail was of considerable importance to governments and to resource industries. Stehling remained in Princeton until 1956.

Project Vanguard

In 1956 Stehling became propulsion engineer at the Navy Research Laboratory on the American artificial satellite program which later became known as Project Vanguard. He wrote of his experiences in the 1961 titled "Project vanguard".

Kurt Richard Stehling (ca. 1959)


Stehling was on the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel (along with Wernher von Braun , Krafft Ehricke, James van Allen, Ernst Stuhlinger, Fred Whipple and others) which urged U.S. President Eisenhower in 1957 to form NASA. In 1961 he sat as a member of the Golovin Committee where he was one of two votes (along with John Houbolt of Langley) to stand by the concept of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous as a method to get humans to the moon.


By 1966 Stehling was working with US Vice President Humphrey in the Environmental Science Service Administration, an organization which was the precursor to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where he wrote more papers pushing the concept of radar satellites to study the ocean and sea ice. In 1970 he wrote "Spotting Pollution from Space" in which he outlined the values again of using satellites for earth observation. That same year he served in the Executive Office of the President of the United States on the National Council of Marine Resources. During the 70's he pioneered various undersea research experiments, including cosmic ray physics and marine bioluminescence analysis. In the 1980s he became senior scientist on the National Ocean Service's engineering staff. In 1986 when he retired he was made NOAA's first Scientist Emeritus.

A few months before his death Stehling wrote an article drawing attention to the rapid decline of the world's helium stores. At the time of his death from a stroke in 1997 he was living in Chevy Chase Maryland where he continued to deliver articles to the Washington Post and the Washington Times, including one which appeared posthumously on the subject of physicist Otto Hahn.

One month after his death NOAA staged a screening of the Imax movie "To Fly!" in Stehling's honour.


Rocket Propulsion (March 1948)

Earth Scanning Techniques For Orbital Rocket Vehicles (January 1953}

Man's Lunar Arrival Certain This Decade (August 1961)

Lunar Landing Propulsion Considerations (Feb 1963)

Remote Sensing of the Oceans (August 1968)

Spotting Pollution from Space (June 1970)