William E. Burrows, historian of the space age, is dead at 87
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William E. Burrows, historian of the space age, is dead at 87
William E. Burrows in 1959, when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University. Burrows, who as a journalist and author explored the promise and perils posed by outer space — including the proliferation of weapons and spy satellites and the threat of potentially earth-shattering asteroids — died on June 29, 2024, in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 87. (The New York Times)

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- William E. Burrows, who as a journalist and author explored the promise and perils posed by outer space — including the proliferation of weapons and spy satellites and the threat of potentially earth-shattering asteroids — died June 29 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was 87.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his former wife, Joelle Hodgson, who said the cause was kidney failure.

Presaging his career by crash-landing model airplanes in his family’s living room in Queens, near Idlewild Airport (now Kennedy International Airport), and surreptitiously taking flying lessons in a Piper Cub as a teenager, Burrows covered air travel, space technology, government secrecy and other subjects for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

He wrote 14 books and established a graduate program in science writing at New York University, where he taught journalism.

Given the growing militarization of space and the challenges posed by environmental hazards and by weapons of mass destruction, Burrows believed that investing in space exploration was crucial, if for no other reason than to potentially save the human race one day by colonizing other planets.

“The question to ask is whether the risk of traveling to space is worth the benefit,” he wrote in The Journal in 2003. “The answer is an unequivocal yes, but not only for the reasons that are usually touted by the space community: the need to explore, the scientific return and the possibility of commercial profit.

“The most compelling reason, a very long-term one,” Burrows added, “is the necessity of using space to protect Earth and guarantee the survival of humanity.”

His 1998 book, “This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review, Alex Roland, a history professor at Duke University, called it the “most successful general survey of space history yet to appear” and said it was “distinguished by the successful integration of three different story lines: manned spaceflight, the militarization of space and space science.”

Also in the Times Book Review, historian Michael Beschloss wrote that Burrows’ 2001 book, “By Any Means Necessary: America’s Secret Air War in the Cold War,” was “an authoritative volume on espionage from space.”

And in reviewing an earlier Burrows book in the Times, “Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security” (1986), John Newhouse, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, said that the author had described the activities of manned and unmanned systems deployed in space and the upper atmosphere in a way that made them “seem more remarkable than exploits of human spies.”

William Eli Burrows was born on March 27, 1937, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where his parents, Eli and Helen (Marino) Burrows, were living temporarily. The family soon moved to New York City, and his father, a Russian-born dress manufacturer, found work in Manhattan’s garment district. He died of brain cancer when his son was 6. Bill Burrows’ mother, an immigrant from Sicily, was a seamstress.

After graduating from Forest Hills High School in Queens, Burrows applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy but failed the physical because he was overweight. Instead, he attended Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1960 and a master’s in international relations in 1962.

Later in 1962, he was hired as a news assistant at the Times. He left two years later for The Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia before joining The Washington Post.

He married Hodgson, an art historian, in 1966; they divorced in 2005. He is survived by their daughter, Dr. Lara Burrows; and two grandchildren.

Burrows was rehired by the Times in 1967 to cover aviation. The next year, he expanded an article he wrote for the Times Magazine about Manfred von Richthofen, the World War I German pilot known as the Red Baron, into his first book, “Richthofen: A True History of the Red Baron.” He then joined the Journal as a feature writer but left after about two years, unhappy about being assigned to cover financial news.

He and his family moved to Spain, where he supported himself as a travel writer while completing three unpublished novels.

NYU recruited Burrows in 1974 to be an assistant professor of journalism. He was later named chairman of its journalism department (now the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute) and established a master’s program in science, health and environmental reporting.

Devoted to documenting the past, Burrows was somewhat apprehensive about the future. He was a founder of the Alliance to Rescue Civilization (it has since been folded into the Lifeboat Foundation), which promoted the establishment of a Moon base stocked with DNA samples of all life on Earth, as well as a compendium of all human knowledge.

Burrows warned in an opinion essay in the Times in 1993 that the Reagan administration’s Star Wars anti-missile defense initiative was doomed because it could not shield all of the nation’s most vital and vulnerable targets. But he wrote that the program, whose official name was the Strategic Defense Initiative, was more likely to work as an offensive system that would give the United States control over access to space.

Burrows proposed an alternative that he labeled an Asteroid Defense Initiative, a system that would be capable of intercepting and destroying celestial objects — from a meteoroid to a dwarf planet — heading toward Earth.

In 2001, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid No. 99330 in his honor, calling it Billburrows. Its projected orbit, he was quick to point out, did not put it on a collision course with Earth.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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