Charles Gordon Little
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Charles Gordon Little
  • November 4, 1924 - June 2, 2017
  • Boulder, Colorado

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Charles Gordon Little died peacefully at his home in Boulder, with family at his side, on June 2nd, 2017. Born in China of missionary parents, he was raised in England where he earned a PhD in Radio Astronomy in 1952. His dissertation was on the scintillation of stars caused by disturbances in the earth's upper atmosphere. This topic was of interest to the U.S. military, who were planning to use satellites for communication and surveillance purposes.

In 1953 Gordon accepted an invitation to join the University of Alaska to study the effects of aurora on incoming radio waves. There he met his beloved wife, Mary, whom he married in Syracuse, New York in 1954. Mary and Gordon settled in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he helped develop the Riometer, a receiver of celestial radio waves now used internationally in a worldwide network to monitor solar activity. In 1957, as Deputy Director of the University's Geophysical Institute, Gordon was one of the first Americans to observe and track the Soviet satellite, Sputnik.

In 1958, Mary and Gordon moved to Boulder, where he entered Federal service. He worked first as Chief of the newly formed Upper Atmosphere and Space Physics Division and later as Director of the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory, both at the National Bureau of Standards. Gordon collaborated with other senior executives in Commerce and Navy to design a new federal agency in 1965, the Environmental Science Services Administration (now retitled the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA). In 1967 he created NOAA's Wave Propagation Laboratory with the mission of developing remote sensing methods for the continuous measurement of atmospheric and oceanic parameters from a distance. The lab specialized in the use of "incoherent scatter" of both acoustic and electromagnetic waves. Using the Doppler effect, the lab established ways to measure wind speed and direction as a function of height. Among the practical applications of the research were methods to protect against wind shear as airplanes land. As Gordon liked to say with his typical British humor, "I started in the upper atmosphere but gradually came down to earth." He retired from NOAA in 1986.

Gordon was a devoted and very loving husband, father, and grandfather. Despite a demanding career, Gordon always took time to encourage each of his children in their interests and talents. He helped them to appreciate the natural world and was always available to enjoy a beautiful sunset or thunderstorm or to comment on why clouds assume the shapes that they do. He took his children hiking, biking, fishing, camping, swimming, ice skating, and skiing. He spent many happy Saturday mornings watching cartoons with his youngest child, Patti. Gordon was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Mary, in 2014.

He is survived by his son Deane Little (Susan) and daughters Joan LeTourneau (Gary), Katherine Hale (Rick), Margaret Little, and Patricia Little (Chris), as well as a sister, Joan, ten grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. He mourned the passing of one grandson, Nathan LeTourneau, in 1994.

Gordon was a charter member of the Federal Senior Executive Service. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1974 for his contributions to the development of remote sensing devices for meteorological parameters in space. Gordon received the Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 1964, the American Meteorological Society Cleveland Abbe Award in 1984, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Losey Atmospheric Science Award in 1992. He served on many National Academy of Sciences committees throughout his career.

Friends are gathering informally to remember Gordon together at Bella Vista at The Academy, 2762 Bella Vista Lane (4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 12th). Hors d'oeuvres and drinks will be served. Please RSVP to Deane Little (dlittle@newsky energy.com). There will be a memorial service for Gordon in the chapel of First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, July 25th at 2:00 p.m., followed by light refreshments.