In honor of his many inventions and patents developed in a 34-year career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, George E. Alcorn, a pioneering African-American physicist and engineer, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame on May 12. The ceremonies, which honored 14 inductees in five categories, were held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. 

The hall’s induction criteria require candidates to hold a U.S. patent that has contributed significantly to the nation’s welfare and the advancement of science and useful arts. 

Alcorn was honored in the Flight and Exploration category for leading a four-person team that developed the first X-ray imaging spectrometer (essentially a device that allows scientists to identify elements using X-rays) via aluminum thermomigration, a small-scale manufacturing process. The result was a smaller, more sensitive device that set the stage for significant changes in deep space exploration methods.

Sharing an aptitude for science, Alcorn and his brother, Charles, developed their interests in science technology while working in their father’s auto mechanic business. Both men went on to become accomplished physicists.

“My father was always my idol,” Alcorn said. “I was impressed with his brilliance. He taught me that all obstacles in life could be overcome by hard work and determination. I applied this philosophy throughout my career.”

Alcorn received a degree in physics from Occidental College, Los Angeles, and a doctorate in physics from Howard University, Washington. He designed more than 30 inventions and received eight patents during his career in private industry and with NASA. 

Alcorn’s work in private industry began in the 1960s. He worked as a research engineer performing orbital mechanics and trajectory analysis for the Titan 1, Nova and Saturn IV rockets for the Space Division of North American Rockwell. He also worked in the aerospace division of Philco-Ford, a division of the Ford Motor Company, which developed satellite-tracking systems for NASA’s manned space program. In addition he developed planetary life-detections schemes for Philco-Ford.

Alcorn held many leadership positions at Goddard in both research and administration.  He began working at NASA Goddard in 1978, when there were very few African-American scientists or engineers affiliated with the agency. As the deputy project manager of advanced development, he led teams that developed technologies for the space station Freedom, a project that eventually evolved into the International Space Station. Alcorn ran the Goddard Evolution program, which provided development and operations for the center’s future growth. Following that, Alcorn oversaw a space shuttle experiment utilizing Robot Operated Material Processing Systems (ROMPs), which involved the manufacturing of material in the microgravity of space. 

In addition to his x-ray spectrometer work, Alcorn also managed the Airborne Lidar Topographic Mapping System (ALTMS) team, working in partnership with the Houston Advanced Research Center of Spring, Texas. The team won the Government Executive Magazine’s Government Technology Leadership Award. The ALTMS allowed researchers to produce accurate and less expensive elevation maps using a 300-pound unit mounted onto a small plane. Alcorn’s team was able to make the first 3-D computerized maps of cities and states. The ALTMS made it possible to more accurately map floodplains, shorelines and erosion, forests and biodiversity, hydrologic modeling, pipeline and utility surveys, highway design simulation, habitat assessments, and studies of rooftop heights for communication antennas.

While at Goddard, Alcorn championed programs aimed at recruiting minorities and women. In 1984, he was awarded the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. For his scientific and technological accomplishments, he was honored by Howard University with the Heritage of Greatness Award.

In 1992, he served as the director of Goddard’s Office of Commercial Programs, encouraging the transfer of Goddard’s aerospace devices and procedures to private industry for use in business, research and education. Alcorn led the program that established NASA‘s first technology incubator in Baltimore. 

In 2010, he received the Robert H. Goddard Award for Merit, for his outstanding innovation and significant contributions to space science, technology and NASA programs. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers honored him with a historical recognition for his contribution to the fabrication of semiconductor devices by plasma as part of the institute’s Global History Network.

Along with his groundbreaking research, Alcorn made reaching out to students a priority. He taught physics and electrical engineering at Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia, and he served as a visiting professor at other institutions.

Alcorn spent more than 17 years involved in programs that focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. He helped start the Saturday Academy, an honors program that began in Washington and has since spread across the country. 

Alcorn was born in 1940 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He now lives in Fairfax, Virginia. He retired from NASA in 2012.