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Tribute: David John Watson, colleague and friend for the past 30 years

The last time I saw David was just over two weeks ago. With others we had gathered in a back garden of friends in South Croxton to observe Mars at the time of its closest approach to Earth for over 60,000 years. David was at the centre of things, operating his telescope with great skill, delighting in the spectacular images of Mars, sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with everyone there, experts and novices alike.†

David conducted his professional life at the University in much the same way. He had an insatiable curiosity about everything he came into contact with. He needed to know in intimate detail how things worked, how he could make them work better and then how he could use what he had learned to better advantage. He was conscientious, meticulous, inventive and utterly reliable. He has employed all these qualities in many valuable and original contributions to our space research programme at the University of Leicester for over 40 years.

Early years in Australia

David was already well established in his career, working on the Skylark rocket programme, when I came to Leicester in 1973. At first I did not see much of him. He came and went, spending much of his time working away either at the British Aircraft Company in Bristol or in Australia on rocket launch campaigns.

Each rocket experiment took about two years to prepare. David would hand-craft his equipment with great care, and then live with it as it was first installed in a rocket payload bay, tested, shipped to Bristol for installation on the rocket and more testing, shipped to Woomera for yet more testing before being launched on short ten-minute flights into space. 

The success rate from these rocket experiments was high and Leicesterís reputation in space science grew accordingly. David became an expert in all aspects of rocket technology and as such helped and guided many young post-graduate students, and not-so-young academics, in the arts and technologies of the subject. 

Several of Davidís partners in these early projects went on from these early successes to enjoy distinguished careers in University research, in teaching, in engineering and, in one case, as a NASA astronaut.

[Photo: Jeff Hoffman and Dave Watson]
Dave Watson (right) with astronaut Jeff Hoffman. In the 1970s they worked together at the University of Leicester on Skylark sounding rockets. The picture was taken on the occasion of Jeff Hoffman's visit to the University of Leicester's Space Research Centre in 2001. 
[Pic: © A F Abbey] 


The rocket programme came to an end around 1980 by which time we had become much more involved in space programmes using orbiting satellites. These required much longer timescales - often spanning up to ten years from start to launch. I have had the great good fortune to work with David on three such projects, first on ROSAT with German partners, then on JET-X with Russian and Italian partners and most recently with NASA on SWIFT.

In all these projects, the rapport that David would establish with his opposite numbers, whether German, Russian, Italian, or American engineers, was key to the smooth working relations we have enjoyed with our foreign partners in these programmes. I know also that David enjoyed the experience of working in such diverse foreign environments.

Despite language and cultural differences, and not least the Russian diet, Moscow was an exciting place in which to work and I think David, on the whole, relished the experience. His unerring sense of direction and ability to navigate the Moscow Metro got us home from many strange places, Russian cemetaries to visit the graves of poets and politicians of the Soviet era or rumbustious Uzbekistan restaurants. 

On one flight home from Moscow, during the first Gulf war, the aircraft was turned back to Moscow because of a bomb threat, telephoned to the British Embassy shortly after our departure. During the tense 30 minutes back to Moscow, we were told to put on our top coats, leave all personal baggage on the aircraft and be prepared to leave the aircraft as quickly as possible after landing. The aircraft touched down, stopped at the end of the runway and all the passengers were evacuated down the escape chutes-into 2 feet of snow and a night-time temperature of Ė28C.

Like most others I ran to get as far away from the aircraft as I could, and in the process lost sight of David. He, apparently, had gone to the front of the aircraft to photograph it with the escape chutes deployed. Typically his avid interest in this unusual aspect of aviation temporarily got the better of any considerations of his self-preservation. Happily, there was no bomb; it was a hoax and we eventually got out of Moscow and home the next day. Typically, again, David sent his photograph to the captain of the aircraft as a memento of the experience.

For the past five years David has been the mainstay of our current satellite project with NASA. Called SWIFT, the mission is setting out to unravel one of natureís great mysteries, the origins of huge outbursts of energy called gamma ray bursts and their recently-discovered connections with supernova explosions. We, at Leicester, have produced one of the instruments for SWIFT, called the X-ray Telescope. David has been the leading designer of this wonderful instrument. 

It took about two-and-a-half years to design and build the X-ray telescope, with major components being built by many different companies and University laboratories, including ours. By the beginning of last year, the whole telescope was coming together and since then David has been a leading figure in the testing and calibration of the telescope. 

He spent many months last year at NASAís Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, working with NASA engineers and the Spectrum Astro spacecraft team installing the X-ray telescope on the spacecraft. During some of this time Marian came to stay with him and I know that they enjoyed exploring the Maryland countryside and tourist sights together whenever David could manage a break in his work.
I was at a conference on Gamma Ray Bursts in Santa Fe last week when news of Davidís untimely death reached me. This conference has hailed the SWIFT mission as hugely significant for new discoveries in this exciting field of astrophysics, providing a new window on the Universe no less. So it is a huge sadness to us all that David will not be with us to witness the fruits of his work when his beautiful X-ray telescope is sent into space on a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida next May.

During the course of the SWIFT project, David gained the respect and admiration of many colleagues among the scientific teams in Leicester, Brera Observatory in Milan and Pennsylvania State University in the US, as well as the engineering teams at NASA and Spectrum Astro in Arizona. Many have sent their condolences and expressions of sorrow at this sad time. I hope that it may be of some comfort to Marian, to Mr and Mrs Watson, Davidís parents and to his wider family, to know how much David was respected and liked as a person by so many of people, from so many different countries.

Last week, in Santa Fe, many people in the SWIFT project were searching for some way to express the great sense of loss that Davidís departure means to us all. We have proposed, and NASA and Spectrum-Astro have agreed, that when SWIFT flies, it will carry a fitting memorial to Davidís personal contribution to this project and an expression of our gratitude for his work and his life. 

A small engraved plaque, fixed to the SWIFT X-ray Telescope, will carry this message into space:

In Memoriam

Friend and Colleague,
Who touched this instrument and our lives
with his gentle and thoughtful attention.

Alan Wells

The above tribute was read out at David Watson's funeral. David Watson died on Thursday, September 7. He joined the University in April 1960 as a Technician in the Department of Physics. He was promoted to Senior Technician in October 1967, Experimental Officer in October 1976, Senior Experimental Officer with the X-Ray Astronomy Group in April 1980, and Principal Experimental Officer in October 1988. 

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Last updated: 8 October 2003 11:00
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