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Wed, 09.02.1914

Walter McAfee, Scientist born

Walter McAfee

*Walter McAfee was born on this date in 1914.  He was a Black scientist and astronomer. 

Walter Samuel McAfee was born in Ore City, Texas; his parents were Luther F. McAfee and Suzie A. Johnson; he was the second of their nine children. At three months old, the family moved to Marshall, Texas, where McAfee would grow up and attend undergraduate school. He graduated high school in Marshall in 1930 and later noted that his high school physics and chemistry teacher, Freeman Prince Hodge, was a great influence on him.

In 1941, he married Viola Winston, who taught French at the same junior high school in Columbus, Ohio, where McAfee taught science and mathematics; McAfee and Winston had two daughters.  McAfee attended Wiley College, where his mother studied, graduating with a BS in mathematics in 1934. McAfee attended the Ohio State University after his undergraduate work and earned his MS in 1937.  He enrolled at the Electronics Research Command at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in May 1942, and it was here that he participated in Project Diana. 

The project's purpose was to bounce a radar signal off the Moon's surface, which would confirm that it was possible for a high-frequency signal to penetrate the Earth's dense ionosphere. Earlier efforts with low- and medium-frequency signals had failed.  One challenge the researchers faced was the discrepancy between the Earth's speed of rotation and that of the Moon. The Moon's speed varies by 750 mph from the Earth's rotation speed. McAfee performed the calculations necessary to ensure that the radar pulse could bounce off the Moon, and on January 10, 1946, the team sent out the signal from a special antenna. Two and a half seconds later, they received a faint radio echo, thus establishing that communication with a spacecraft on the Moon was possible. 

After his work on Project Diana with the United States Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories, McAfee returned to school, receiving the Rosenwald Fellowship to continue his doctoral studies at Cornell University. In 1949 McAfee was awarded his Ph.D. in Physics for his work on nuclear collisions under Hans Bethe.  Initial reports on Project Diana failed to mention McAfee, and he did not receive any credit until the project's twenty-fifth anniversary in 1971.  In the meantime, he had gone on to a doctorate at Cornell University.   

He remained associated with the Electronics Research Command for over forty years and, from 1958 to 1975, also taught nuclear physics and electronics at nearby Monmouth College.  McAfee's honors included induction into Wiley College's Science Hall of Fame in 1982. McAfee later founded a math and physical science fellowship at Wiley to encourage minority interest in those subjects. He retired in 1985. McAfee died at his home in South Belmar, New Jersey, on February 18, 1995. His heart stopped beating at his home in South Belmar, New Jersey. 

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