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NASA engineer who died from the coronavirus reached this world and beyond

John Chitwood, a St. Petersburg resident, died at 73.

Jake Eckardt is starting to sift through the boxes, the papers, the ham radio gear.

John Chitwood, his late husband, loved to build things and take them apart, but he rarely threw anything out.

Eckardt found the letters he wrote to Mr. Chitwood after they met in 1995 at a convention for ham radio operators. They were with other people then but stayed in touch. Eckardt didn’t know Mr. Chitwood had saved the letters.

His awards from a 37-year career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are scattered about the office, the garden shed and the garage.

And settled onto any available space — ham radio gear.

During his life, Mr. Chitwood connected with ham radio operators all over the world. Through his work at NASA on planetary probes and satellites, he helped connect this world to places way beyond it.

Mr. Chitwood, who was hospitalized for a fall and then tested positive for the coronavirus, died June 26. He was 73.

Mr. Chitwood discovered ham radio at a young age and, as an adult, became part of the Rainbow Amateur Radio Association. His call letters were K3RGB.
Mr. Chitwood discovered ham radio at a young age and, as an adult, became part of the Rainbow Amateur Radio Association. His call letters were K3RGB. [ Courtesy David Chitwood ]

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Chitwood’s grandfather brought home a 17-tube, Zenith shortwave radio, and before long, the elementary schooler took over a corner of his father’s workbench and started building ham radios.

His first, brother David Chitwood remembers, was made from a metal file box.

Mr. Chitwood moved on to the radio club in high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and got his novice license in ham radio in 1961.

He loved to talk to people, his brother said — on the radio, at family events, as a DJ at his college radio station at Drexel University. At 18, through a program between his university and the industry, Mr. Chitwood started working at NASA’s Goddard campus in Greenbelt, Md.

There, he spent his career working on new ways to communicate.

Mr. Chitwood’s stubbornness was legendary in his family, his brother said. “Once he made his mind up about something, it was very, very difficult to get him to change.”
Mr. Chitwood’s stubbornness was legendary in his family, his brother said. “Once he made his mind up about something, it was very, very difficult to get him to change.” [ Courtesy David Chitwood ]

At Goddard, Mr. Chitwood’s desk was covered with neat towers of papers and technical magazines. He could find anything in those piles quickly, said Michael Powers, who worked for Mr. Chitwood in the Microwave Systems Branch.

Cathy Long worked for him, too, and chose his team when she joined NASA because, as one of the few women there at the time, she thought he’d be a supportive boss.

She was right.

He gave his young reports big jobs and hid in the back of group pictures, remember Powers and Long, who are married.

Mr. Chitwood worked on the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE. In 2006, two scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics “for work that looks back into the infancy of the Universe and attempts to gain some understanding of the origin of galaxies and stars. It is based on measurements made with the help of the COBE satellite launched by NASA in 1989.”

“John was a major contributor to the success of that mission,” Long said.

During his career with NASA, Mr. Chitwood traveled around the world. He was easygoing, his husband said, and even-tempered.
During his career with NASA, Mr. Chitwood traveled around the world. He was easygoing, his husband said, and even-tempered. [ Ý | Courtesy David Chitwood ]

At work and with family, Mr. Chitwood was intensely private.

“We had to be very careful in those days,” Eckardt said.

In 2002, Mr. Chitwood’s long-time partner died.

More than a decade later, Mr. Chitwood stopped his brother as he started to leave a holiday gathering.

“There’s something I have to tell you,” he said. “I’ve fallen in love for the second time in my life.”

Mr. Chitwood and Eckardt moved to St. Pete in 2015. They married in 2017.

Here, Eckardt said, they traveled the world, had their best years together, made friends and memories.

One evening, Eckardt remembers, Mr. Chitwood took his husband to stand in the front yard. Eckardt looked up at the night sky. Mr. Chitwood looked down at his watch.

“The space station should be coming over the horizon,” he said.

“There it came,” Eckardt said. “It was just a little star that flew across the sky.”

Mr. Chitwood, left, pictured here with husband Jake Eckardt in Rome, retired from NASA in 2001, at 55. He and Eckardt loved to travel, take cruises and chat with friends on their ham radios.
Mr. Chitwood, left, pictured here with husband Jake Eckardt in Rome, retired from NASA in 2001, at 55. He and Eckardt loved to travel, take cruises and chat with friends on their ham radios. [ Courtesy Jake Eckardt ]

Those we’ve lost:

We’re collecting stories of the people we’ve lost to the coronavirus. Please share suggestions at khare@poynter.org, and sign up for our weekly newsletter, coming soon, called How They Lived.

Read other Epilogues:

Coach G pushed generations of athletes to believe in themselves

Michael Konrad spent his life making his co-workers and community better

Deo Persaud built his life from scratch in Guyana, then did it again in America

Rita Mosely walked miles each day for work and pushed her family much farther

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