Thursday, November 23, 2017
News Roundup

Pinellas physicist created device used by astronauts on the moon

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ST. PETE BEACH — For many of us, the remnants of past jobs lie somewhere in boxes in an attic or a storage locker.

Robert Oman, a physicist whose work contributed to several of the Apollo manned space missions, could be reminded of his work on any full moon. All he had to do was look up.

Dr. Oman is credited with conceiving a device that measured atmospheric pressure on the moon. As NASA planned to study the moon, it was at the center of an important question: Does the moon have an atmosphere at all?

Born and raised in Boston, Dr. Oman earned a doctorate in physics from Brown University. He served in the Army and its reserve, attaining the rank of captain.

He met his future wife, Judith Kaminski, after jumping aboard a passenger train as it began to pull away.

"I didn't know it at the time, but that's how he did everything," said Judith Oman, 77. He was more practical than romantic. He bought her industrial grade diamonds, harder than the jewelry store variety.

They moved frequently. Dr. Oman worked for the company that is now United Technologies and for a defense contractor later acquired by Northrop Grumman.

That work led to unforgettable years in the 1960s, as scientists around the country pooled resources in the first manned space explorations.

"It was a great national experience shared by a lot of people, and he was very proud to be a part of that," said Daniel Oman, his son.

The instrument Dr. Oman conceived — the cold cathode magnetron ultrahigh vacuum gage — converted gas molecules to ions, which emit a measurable electrical charge.

They found traces of gases, or an atmospheric pressure 100-trillion times weaker than that of the Earth. That work helped confirm the idea that the size of a planet or moon might determine whether there is an atmosphere that could support life.

Before and after NASA, he taught at several universities, including the University of Minnesota and Northeastern University in Boston. After moving to St. Petersburg in 1991, he taught classes at St. Petersburg College, the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa.

Together with Daniel, an electrical engineer, he wrote several books, including Physics for the Utterly Confused and a similar volume on calculus.

"His message to people was always that they were smarter than they might think of themselves, and capable of great things," said Daniel Oman.

Dr. Oman and his wife had lived in Singapore for five years, where he and his son tutored students in math and physics.

The couple returned to their St. Pete Beach home in January, shortly before doctors found late-stage cancer.

He quit chemotherapy after two days. "He said, 'Adding time to my sitting in bed is not what I would call adding time to my life,' " his wife said. "He was not being maudlin or emotional. It was an intellectual decision."

Dr. Oman died Tuesday under hospice care. He was 78.

His pressure gauges accompanied several Apollo missions and were placed near the Fra Mauro and the Salyut craters.

"They're still up there," his son said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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