Joachim Kuettner: In Memoriam of the Renaissance Man of Meteorology

Joach Kuettner

Joach Kuettner


Atmospheric science has lost one of the last living links to its formative era. Joachim Kuettner—the eminent researcher, administrator, field project leader, and glider pilot—died on 24 February at the age of 101. Kuettner’s seven-decade career was saluted in a 2009 UCAR Magazine article and in a daylong symposium at the American Meteorological Society’s 2010 annual meeting. In addition, a website with links to many articles and videos by and about Kuettner has been created by the NCAR Archives. “Joach was a remarkable colleague with an amazing, rich history. His collaborative spirit, energy, kindness, and sense of humor will be greatly missed by all,” says UCAR president Richard Anthes. Born and raised in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Kuettner initially studied economics and law. At 21, he became the youngest person to earn a doctorate at the University of Breslau. However, his career would soon shift toward science, as described in a 1994 profile in UCAR & NCAR Staff Notes: “Serving as a judge’s assistant in small-town German courts while learning to be a glider pilot, Joach found himself looking wistfully out of the courtroom window at cumulus clouds and realized that his real interest lay in meteorology.” Kuettner successfully combined his new interests, beginning in the late 1930s. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Hamburg analyzed the dynamics of lee waves as observed by a fleet of instrumented gliders. After emigrating to the United States, Kuettner learned even more as scientific field director for the Sierra Wave Project in California during the 1950s. (His U.S. arrival was a bit rocky, as he explains in this short video from 2009). Kuettner’s interest in gliding was more than academic: he set two world altitude records, in one case soaring to 13,000 meters (43,000 feet) in a single-seat glider. he next phase of Kuettner’s extraordinary career began in 1958 as he was asked to lead NASA's Mercury Redstone effort, which in 1961 made Alan Shepard the first American to head into space. As Kuettner later described that launch, “Everything went perfectly.” Kuettner later served as head of systems integration for the Apollo project before transitioning to leadership roles in observational field campaigns. Among the projects under his watch were 1969’s Barbados Oceanographic Meteorological Experiment (BOMEX), 1974’s GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE), and 1992’s Central Pacific Experiment (CEPEX). Most recently, he was principal investigator on 2004’s Terrain-Induced Rotor Experiment (T-Rex), which took him back to the Sierra Nevada. “If one were to describe Joach succinctly, one would have to use the adjectives focused, curious, and expansive,” said longtime collaborator Robert Grossman (University of Colorado) in a 1994 article. Kuettner was also renowned for his supportive working style and his extensive mentoring. Kuettner’s career took a new turn in 1994 when, at age 84, he became the first holder of the UCAR Distinguished Chair for Atmospheric Science and International Research. The initial appointment was for two years, but it continued well into the 2000s, as Kuettner’s unquenchable thirst for discovery kept him in touch with many colleagues at NCAR, UCAR, and beyond. 

Curriculum Vitae: Joachim P. Kuettner

A group of people sit around a table that is covered in maps and papers. There are maps and satellite photos on the wall behind the people. Joachim Kuettner is on the far left facing the camera.

Dr. Joachim Kuettner: A Timeline of Accomplishments

Year Accomplishments
2010 The Joachim Kuettner Symposium at the 90th Meeting of the American Meterological Society
2010 Dr. Kuettner receives the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors
2009 "The Joy and Adventure of Exploring the Atmosphere," a presentation given in honor of Dr. Kuettner's 100th birthday
2009 UCAR Magazine details Dr. Kuettner's seven decades of science
2009 Staff Notes honors Dr. Kuettner on his 100th birthday
2006 Dr. Kuettner and T-Rex: Catching the Sierra's waves and rotors
2006 Dr. Kuettner and T-Rex: Advanced Aircraft to Probe Hazardous Atmospheric Whirlwind
2005 HIAPER Aircraft: A Research Veteran Turns to HIAPER
2005 Reflective Research
2003 Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture: The Joy and Adventure of Exploring the Atmosphere
2000 UCAR Distinguished Chair, UCAR Quarterly
2000 Mesoscale Alpine Field Program
2000 UCAR at 40: Dr. Joach Kuettner
1999 INDOEX field program
1998 Motorized Glider Studies Thermals
1998 Motorized Glider Studies Thermals
1998 A field project sampler
1995 Dr. Kuettner becomes the first occupant of the "UCAR Distinguished Chair for Atmospheric Science and International Research."
1994 Celebration of a Renaissance Man: The Joachim Kuettner Symposium