‘Short Visit’ to United States Lasts 40 Years for Scientist Leading NASA Mission to Test Einstein Theory
In 1960, Dr. C. W. Francis Everitt ventured from his home country of Great Britain for “two or three years” to conduct physics research in the United States. More than 40 years later, he’s still here. And when Gravity Probe B — a NASA-sponsored experiment to test Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — was launched April 20, it represents the culmination of decades of his career Everitt devoted to help make it happen. Gravity Probe B is managed by the Marshall Center.
In 1960, Dr. C. W. Francis Everitt ventured from his home country of Great Britain for “two or three years” to conduct physics research in the United States. More than 40 years later, he’s still here. And when Gravity Probe B — a NASA-sponsored experiment to test Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — is launched this month, it will be the culmination of decades of his career Everitt devoted to help make it happen.
A scientist and professor at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., Everitt is the principal investigator for Gravity Probe B. Also known as GP-B, the mission is set for launch April 19 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The experiment will use four ultra-precise gyroscopes to test Einstein’s 1916 theory that space and time are distorted by the presence of massive objects.
“It’s very exciting to test Einstein,” says Everitt, whose own interest in science and engineering was fueled by the interests of his father who was an engineer. “When I was about 13, I remember my father discussing at the dinner table Einstein’s book, ‘The Meaning of Relativity,'” he said.
The youngest of five children, Everitt followed his family’s tradition of academic pursuits. His older siblings had earned advanced degrees in subjects ranging from math, history, and accounting to theology. In 1959, Everitt earned his doctorate in physics from the University of London.
In 1960, he traveled to the United States to study low-temperature physics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He arrived Oct. 6 — a date he still remembers because it was near the end of the heated presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
In 1962, he joined Stanford University as a researcher and professor of physics. With the addition of Everitt, Stanford formed the physics-engineering team that would take the first steps in designing a remarkable experiment to measure two factors — how space and time are very slightly warped by the presence of the Earth, and how the Earth’s rotation very slightly drags space-time around with it.
So began the long and often challenging process of Gravity Probe B design, analysis, and exploratory research, funded by NASA and managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Even if he had sought to plan his career to the last detail — which he didn’t — Everitt says he couldn’t have anticipated how things turned out. “My job has changed about five times,” he says.
Even though he didn’t anticipate a career spanning four decades focused on Gravity Probe B, Everitt appreciates the help he’s received from a wide variety of people who lent their support to the ambitious science project. “We have had amazing support from unexpected directions,” says Everitt. “People came in and helped us right at the moment we needed it. This kind of support only increases your responsibility to do the experiment right.”
Already Gravity Probe B has achieved unexpected results. For instance, new technologies that will help shape future scientific experiments, 78 doctoral dissertations by students at Stanford and other universities participating in Gravity Probe B research, and perhaps a new way to look at Einstein’s theories.
“Of the 13 doctoral dissertations at universities other than Stanford, four were from the University of Alabama in Huntsville,” he said. “This is one additional way this project has benefited from the collaboration — technical as well as managerial — between Stanford and the Marshall Center.”
With a wide interest in scientific advancements — both past and future — Everitt has written nearly 100 research papers and five books, including a biography of James Clerk Maxwell, a 19th century Scottish physicist who predicted the existence of radio waves 26 years before they were proven to exist. In his free time, Everitt has run three marathons, remained active in his church and visited his home country as often as he can.
NASA’s prime contractor for the mission, Stanford University, conceived the experiment and is responsible for the design and integration of the science instrument, as well as for mission operations and data analysis. A major subcontractor, Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, Calif., designed, integrated and tested the spacecraft and some of its major payload components. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Boeing Expendable Launch Systems of Huntington Beach, Calif., are responsible for the countdown and launch of the Delta II rocket that will carry Gravity Probe B into space.