Obituary: Michael J. Wargo / NASA scientist proud of Clairton roots


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Michael J. Wargo's brilliant scientific mind helped lead to discoveries for NASA that are crucial to future space exploration, but he was so grounded by his Clairton upbringing that he never lost the bliss to be found in a beer with buddies or in the heavenly flavor of his mother's stuffed cabbage.

Such duality -- an inquisitive mind passionately probing outer space merged with a down-to-earth, fun-loving personality -- made him widely respected as a scientist and well-liked as a human being.

Mr. Wargo, 61, who died Aug. 4 of a heart-related problem in his home in Alexandria, Va., was chief exploration scientist for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission.

So revered was he by his NASA colleagues that earlier this month they had the moon-orbiting LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) spacecraft broadcast a recording of his voice -- the first human voice to be heard from lunar orbit since the Apollo 17 mission 41 years earlier.

"The true spirit of these missions is that science enables exploration and exploration enables science," Mr. Wargo said in the recording. The broadcast date -- Oct. 9 -- was chosen because it was the fourth anniversary of the LCROSS project that found water on the moon -- yet another lunar project in which he participated.

To further honor Mr. Wargo, NASA has asked the International Astronomical Union to name a crater on the moon in his honor "so his name will be forever enshrined in the heavens."

On Saturday, he will be remembered in Clairton at a Mass at 10 a.m. in St. Clare of Assisi Parish, where he long ago served as an altar boy when it was known as St. Joseph Church.

Mr. Wargo, who worked at NASA for nearly two decades, was a leading contributor to the space agency's human lunar and planetary exploration program. As a scientific member of many lunar missions, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), he helped map resources for human missions to the moon and participated in the discovery of ice in the shadows of lunar craters.

He was a member of the team that is planning the next robotic mission to Mars in 2020 and worked gathering crucial scientific information needed to allow humans to be sent safely to the moon, Mars and near-Earth asteroids. Much of his work has helped develop a "road map" for human and robotic space exploration for the next two decades.

He began his career at NASA by turning a fledgling microgravity research division into a world-class program. NASA drew on Mr. Wargo's ability to explain complex scientific findings in straightforward terms as a spokesman at agency news conferences. He received numerous awards including NASA's Exceptional Service Medal and seven group achievement awards.

Mr. Wargo graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a bachelor's degree in earth and planetary science and received a doctorate in materials science in 1982. At MIT, he was recognized with the John Wulff Award for excellence in teaching and the Hugh Hampton Young Memorial Fund Prize for exhibiting leadership and creativity while maintaining exceptionally broad and interdisciplinary interests.

He married in 2007, and he and his wife, Adele Morrissette, had a commuter marriage -- she is an investment banker in New York City and he worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

He graduated in 1969 from Clairton High School, where he excelled academically and was a member of the varsity swim and tennis teams. He also was an Eagle Scout.

"He was one of the most outstanding students I ever taught," recalled Gerard Pasquerell, a retired teacher who had Mr. Wargo for 11th-grade U.S. history and was his swim coach for two years. "He was a wise kid but not a wise guy. His character was outstanding. He was just a regular guy but way above, believe me."

Mr. Pasquerell said that in addition to Mr. Wargo's intellectual gifts, his success was fostered by growing up in a tight-knit family. He was the second-oldest of four brothers and lived in a city with a sense of community.

David Wargo of New York City, two years younger than his brother, Michael, agreed that their parents, the late Margaret and John J. Wargo, children of Slovak immigrants, instilled in their own children the value of hard work, good character and strong principles. Their father, who worked at U.S. Steel's Clairton Works, was adamant about making sure his sons got a college education.

"He would take us to the mill, he said, 'to show you what I do, so you'll know you don't want to do this and why you want to go to college,' " David Wargo recalled.

And so the brothers, who also include Clairton residents John, the oldest, and Robert, the youngest, became the first generation of their family to go to college. All four of them graduated from MIT, an accomplishment so profound that the school presented the parents with an award in 1978 for "exemplary parenthood."

Michael Wargo was on the college lacrosse and water polo teams, rode motorcycles, and was a scuba diver and rock climber. His sense of humor was legendary as was his hearty laugh and booming voice, which colleagues nicknamed "Radio-Free Wargo."

"He was a great friend, a great scientist and one of the most ethical people I ever met," said Roger K. Crouch of Washington, D.C., a retired astronaut who logged more than 471 hours in space during shuttle flights in 1997. "He was the most positive, upbeat person I've ever known. And he was probably one of the most passionate scientists I've ever met."

The two friends first met in 1979 when Mr. Crouch, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, went to MIT as a visiting scientist while Mr. Wargo was a graduate student there. After Mr. Crouch returned to NASA, he continually urged Mr. Wargo, then teaching at MIT, to join the agency, and he finally succeeded.

"I think it's fair to say Mike's contributions enabled the program to become highly visible in the public and enabled the funding for future missions," Mr. Crouch said. "The results of LCROSS and LADEE will again generate the interest that NASA needs in order to go back to the moon and complete the scientific investigations that basically we just started over the last three decades or so."

He added that Mr. Wargo was unpretentious about his professional accomplishments but was prideful of his upbringing.

"Almost always in social situations he would bring up that he was from Clairton, Pa., that his father worked in a steel mill there and the heritage of that. He was proud of that."


Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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