William E. Stoney Jr., an aeronautical engineer who made important contributions to NASA’s mission during the space race as a developer of early rockets and a lead engineer on the Apollo program, died May 28 at a rehabilitation center in Ashburn, Va. He was 96.
Mr. Stoney was in his early 20s, fresh out of MIT following service as an airplane mechanic during World War II, when he joined NASA’s predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1949.
Working at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., he joined a group of engineers renowned for their imaginative work on pilotless aircraft and rocket technology.
Mr. Stoney thus was in a key position when the space race began in the 1950s, pitting the two Cold War superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, in a contest to reach what was seen as the final frontier.
A critical moment — and an embarrassing setback for the United States — came in 1957 with the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.
“We were disappointed we weren’t the first,” Mr. Stoney reflected years later, “but in another sense it reassured us that we were really on the right track — that, boy, we really could get supported from now on, because this was important that the U.S. continue to try to catch up, and we were part of that game.”
Mr. Stoney became the program manager overseeing the development of the solid-propellant rocket known as Scout. NASA today describes the rocket as “one of the most successful boosters” in the history of the space agency, with payloads producing “critical advancements in atmospheric and space science.”
In the 1960s, as ambitions shifted to manned spaceflight, Mr. Stoney was appointed chief of advanced space vehicle concepts at NASA’s Washington headquarters and led the advanced spacecraft technology division in Houston. He served in top engineering roles during the Apollo program, whose signal accomplishment was the moon landing by astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969. That year, Mr. Stoney received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal for his work on the Apollo mission.
After he had “rubbed the moon dust” out of his eyes, as he put it, Mr. Stoney became director of NASA’s earth observations programs in 1973, leading the development of satellites for meteorological purposes as well as the monitoring of atmospheric pollution and earth resources.
William Edmund Stoney Jr. was born on Sept. 13, 1925, in Terre Haute, Ind., and grew up in Charleston, S.C., and in Brooklyn. His father was a civil engineer who worked on the Panama Canal, and his mother was a homemaker. Observing her young son’s interest in flight, she once accompanied Mr. Stoney to an airfield where he flew aboard an airplane piloted by pioneering aviator Clarence D. Chamberlin.
After Army Air Forces service in the Pacific during World War II, Mr. Stoney received a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949. He received two master’s degrees, one in aeronautical engineering from the University of Virginia in 1951 and another in industrial management from MIT in 1962.
Mr. Stoney retired from NASA in 1978 and later worked in the private sector, including with the RCA Corp. on advanced robotics and with Noblis, a nonprofit technology company.
Mr. Stoney’s first marriage, to Roberta Beckner, ended in divorce. His second wife, Joy Scafard Stoney, died in 2016 after 51 years of marriage.
Survivors include three stepchildren from his second marriage whom he adopted, Catherine Stoney of Vienna, Va., Jeanne Stoney-Disston of Weston, Conn., and Robert Stoney of Herndon, Va.; a son from his second marriage, John Stoney of Austin; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Stoney had been a member since his 20s of the American Society for Psychical Research and had amassed a collection of more than 1,000 books and other materials on the paranormal and the possibility of life after death.