John Hillman; Astrophysicist and Flag Preserver

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

John J. Hillman, 67, a NASA astrophysicist who did work on the atmospheres of planets, the composition of comets and the preservation of the Star-Spangled Banner, died of ocular melanoma Feb. 12 at his home in Columbia.

Dr. Hillman was a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and was also a gourmet chef, award-winning floral designer and certified copyist at the National Gallery of Art, where he particularly enjoyed working on the paintings of William Harnett and Orazio Gentileschi.

His interest in art led him to learn of the National Museum of American History's project to preserve the Star-Spangled Banner, the American flag that withstood the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. He called Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the museum's senior textile conservator, and offered her a way to examine the flag using infrared light. He had in mind NASA's one-of-a-kind Acousto-Optic Imaging Spectrometer, which had been developed for space research but could reveal deteriorated and soiled areas of the flag not visible to the eye.

"It was an opportunity to gather information in a way we wouldn't have been able to gather in any other way and at a time before we would have lost that opportunity," Thomassen-Krauss said.

Because the flag was on display, the team was required to work at night. The camera could see layers of brushwork and underdrawings and could determine the pigment used in the paint, which is useful in distinguishing an authentic piece from a forgery. Dr. Hillman noted at the time that the technology also could be used in skin cancer research and for analysis of prehistoric sites.

Thomassen-Krauss and her team worked with Dr. Hillman for two weeks, just before the flag was taken down for restoration. "My team still regards working with him as one of the highlights of our work," she said.

As interested as he was in that project, his work was mainly in the heavens. He helped develop state-of-the-art instrumentation used for astronomy, and in 2002 he told Scientific American magazine about an airborne laboratory carrying high-speed cameras, radio receivers and human observers that was tracking the Leonid meteor storm over Spain. The work, Dr. Hillman said, "promises an important and unique database for the development of instruments targeted at in situ sampling of cometary materials and for the future definition of comet missions."

This was a man who loved to learn. When one of his daughters started a floral shop, Dr. Hillman helped out and entered a contest at Washington's home and garden show for flower arranging. He won first and second place, his wife said.

He was born in Fort Jay, N.Y., and grew up in Washington, graduating from Chamberlain Vocational High School in 1956. He went to college full time for one semester, married in 1958, then combined family and night school with work for the next 20 years. He received three degrees from American University, all in physics: a bachelor's in 1967, a master's in 1970 and a doctoral in 1975.

Dr. Hillman joined NASA in 1969, working in a variety of positions in atomic and molecular physics, metrological standards, atmospheric sciences, astronomy and astrophysics before his last position, as senior scientist in the Laboratory for Extraterrestrial Physics.

As visiting senior research scientist at the University of Maryland's Department of Astronomy, he was co-director of the College Park Scholars in Science, Discovery & the Universe. He was a member of the Church of the Resurrection in Burtonsville.

He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Astronomical Society, American Physical Society and American Geophysical Union. He wrote or co-wrote 80 papers for publication.

Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Patricia A. Hillman of Columbia; five children, Kathleen Martin of Sykesville, Karen Stott of Sykesville, Kimberly Housman of Marriottsville, John Hillman of Eldersburg and James Hillman of Mount Airy; a brother, William Hillman of Fulton; and 12 grandchildren.

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