In Memoriam: Sam Durrance

It is with sadness we report the passing of Sam Durrance, a visionary astronomer and Professor Emeritus at Florida Tech known for his important research and discoveries both on and above Earth.

Dr. Durrance passed away May 5 on the Space Coast surrounded by family after a long struggle with dementia and Parkinson’s disease. He was 79.

One of the first non-career astronauts to fly with NASA, he logged over 615 hours in space as an astronaut payload specialist on the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia for the STS35/Astro-1 and Space Shuttle Endeavour for the STS-67/Astro-2 missions between 1990 and 1995.

He shared a unique memory of that experience with NASA.

Dr. Durrance’s time at Florida Tech began in 2005, when he joined what was then the Department of Physics and Space Sciences. He had previously served as executive director of the Florida Space Research Institute and director of the Florida Space Grant Consortium.

Hamid Rassoul, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Physics and Space Sciences at Florida Tech and former dean of the College of Science, was instrumental in bringing Dr. Durrance to the university. The two were longtime friends who also worked as co-teachers for several courses at the Florida Space Institute.

“When I became dean, Sam was my sounding board and a senior advisor on space-related investments and issues. He was one of our most caring and committed professors, loved and respected by his peers and his students,” Rassoul said. “I always treasure his guidance and friendship. He was an angel of kindness and friendship for all who knew and worked with him.” 

Dr. Durrance remained at Florida Tech for the next 15 years – including teaching many summer classes over that time. He departed in 2020 and was soon named faculty emeritus.

At Florida Tech, he was involved in many interesting endeavors, including:

“This is extremely sad news,” said former student Dylan Bell, Ph.D., who earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in space sciences at Florida Tech and is now a teacher at Pine View School for the Gifted in Osprey, Florida. “Sam is the one who put me on my path, and I will never forget him.”

Stacy Irwin, Ph.D. first met Dr. Durrance on a campus tour at Florida Tech in 2006. By May 2007, she entered the space sciences graduate program, and for the next eight years, while she earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in space sciences, he was her graduate advisor.

“Sam embodied the proverb, ‘Still waters run deep.’ While he wasn’t the life of the party, never bragged about his accomplishments nor used his sway and influence overtly, one-on-one interactions with him were powerful and full of meaning,” she said. “When with students, he modelled implicit trust and good will, so that regardless of your background, current status or future goals, you felt validated. He had a gift for relating intimately with everyone, treating anyone he met as an equal: all were equally worthy of respect, whether 18 or 80, traditional or adult student, grad or undergrad.

“By the time you left,” Irwin continued, “you knew inexplicably that he believed in you. It was rarely conveyed in words, but rather in how he listened, in a kind of quiet acceptance. His legacy is the impact he left on the people around him, especially the students.”

Irwin, a data scientist who has worked for Facebook parent company Meta and the U.S. Army, recalled how “passionate and driven” Dr. Durrance was about science, space research and his students. “His enthusiasm was understated and not zealous or imposing. He was confident without being pretentious and lived his values of generosity, gratitude, humility and compassion,” she said. He wasn’t a saint, but he was pretty darn close.”

Over his career, which he began as a principal research scientist in the William H. Miller III Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Durrance developed space-borne instrumentation including telescopes, spectrometers, detectors and imaging systems. He conducted ultraviolet spectroscopic observations, making several important discoveries in planetary astronomy. He also made important discoveries in the fields of star- and planet-formation, including as part of the team that discovered Gliese 229 B, the first unambiguous detection of a brown dwarf.

He published over 60 technical papers on topics including planetary astronomy, adaptive optics, atmospheric physics and spacecraft operations.

“Today we mourn the passing of Samuel Durrance, an astronomer who flew aboard two @NASA Space Shuttle missions as a payload specialist and operated a collection of four telescopes as part of the Astro-1 and Astro-2 Spacelabs,” NASA Johnson Space Center posted on Twitter. “Godspeed, Samuel.”

Samuel Thornton Durrance was born Sept. 17, 1943, in Tallahassee, Florida, but he considered Tampa his hometown. He and his wife Rebecca have two children, Ben and Susan. His hobbies, according to NASA, included going to the beach with his family, scuba diving, flying, running, auto racing, photography and camping.

In a tribute to his father posted on Facebook, Ben Durrance wrote, “He was a beloved father, grandfather, husband, brother, astronaut, and professor widely known and respected for his outstanding contributions to science, education, and humanity.”

A man of “remarkable character and admired for his intelligence, kindness, gentleness, selflessness, and humility,” Dr. Durrance was an outstanding educator, Ben wrote.

“As a professor, he inspired countless students to pursue their dreams and make their mark in the world. His commitment to education and innovation earned him numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the Space Foundation’s highest honor, the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award.” 

Dr. Durrance, “a true man of science to the end and beyond,” asked that his body be donated to support the ongoing medical research associated with astronauts who have flown in space, his family said in a statement. “At the conclusion of that research, he will be cremated and the remains returned to the family.”

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 24, at Faith Fellowship Church, 2820 Business Center Blvd. in Melbourne. A reception will follow. The family asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Astro Restoration Project, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization promoting STEM education through restoration of the Astro payload, which flew on both of Dr. Durrance’s shuttle missions.

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