Donald Arthur Rice, 69, retired chief of the gravity and astronomy branch of the National Ocean Survey, died of cancer Tuesday at Anne Arundel General Hospital in Annapolis. He lived in Crofton, Md.

He retired in 1974 after 42 years of federal government service. He started as a mathematician with the Army Corps of Engineers, transferred in 1942 to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, forerunner of the National Ocean Survey, and was made a branch chief in 1950.

In recognition of his contributions to geodetic science, Mr. Rice received the Commerce Department's Silver Medal in 1952, and in 1958, the Colbert Medal of the Society of American Military Engineers, of which he was a member.

He also belonged to the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping and the Washington Academy of Sciences and was a fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

Mr. Rice had held offices in the International Association of Geodesy of the International Bravimetric Commission of IAG, the International Astronomical Union and the Pan American Institute of Geography and History. He had published numerous scientiic papers.

He was born in Rensselaer, N.Y., and grew up in Albany, N.Y. He studied engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clarkson College of Technology and George Washington University.

At the age of 12, Mr. Rice received an amateur radio license, and had received numerous awards from the American Radio Relay League Inc. as well as international recognition as a ham operator.

He was an experienced sailor, and belonged to the Chesapeake Bay Alberg One-Design Association, the West River Sailing Club and the Pirate's Cove Yacht Club of Galesville, Md.

He is survived by his wife, the former Anne Sleman Machen, of the home; three sons, Donald F., of Alexandria, Richard A., of Annapolis, and John M., of Fort Hood, Tex., and a sister, Mrs. George W. Van Etten, of Green Valley, Ariz.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy may be in the form of contributions to the American Cancer Society.