Robert Brownlee, ‘father of underground testing’ of nukes, dies

Updated May 10, 2018 - 7:52 am

As the “father of underground testing,” Dr. Robert Brownlee helped plan more than 300 nuclear explosions beneath the desert northwest of Las Vegas.

The nuclear weapons scientist for Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico died May 2 at his home in Loveland, Colorado. He was 94.

Brownlee was born on March 4, 1924, in Zenith, Kansas.

His transition from farm boy to physicist began at an early age.

“He always told us kids that he came alive at 5 years old when he started questioning the world around him,” said his daughter, Nancy Bonnema. “He wanted to understand everything.”

Brownlee joined the Army during World War II but soon transferred into the Air Corps, where he served as flight navigator and instructor on B-29 bombers, first in Texas and then the Pacific. Late in the war, he was stationed on the island of Tinian, where he and his buddies watched a bomber called the Enola Gay being prepped for something big and top secret.

Brownlee married his high school sweetheart, Addie Leah Brownlee, during the war, and two remained together until her death in 2013.

From classroom to lab

After his military service, he earned an undergraduate science degree from Sterling College in Kansas, a master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from Indiana University. Along the way, he taught high school math and science and worked other jobs to support his young family.

His Ph.D. helped land him a job at what was then known as the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where he would remain for 37 years.

His early work for the lab involved conducting and analyzing nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific.

Later, when atmospheric testing was banned and the nuclear blasts moved underground at the Nevada Test Site in 1963, Brownlee was tasked with figuring out how to contain the experiments and the radiation they produced.

“He was known as the father of underground testing because it was his job to figure that out,” Bonnema said. “He was totally dedicated to his job and thought it was important to the safety of our country.”

Brownlee wrote a book about his time in nuclear weapons development and remained active in the sciences after he retired from Los Alamos. He maintained his security clearances and continued to consult for the Department of Energy, even as he served as a member of the U.S. scientific delegation to the United Nations’ geothermal energy program and as a visiting assistant professor of astronomy at UCLA.

He also took part in rocket launch tests in Hawaii and Alaska and chased solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions around the world as part of scientific expeditions. Along the way, he earned membership in the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the International Astronomical Union and the Royal Astronomical Society.

In 2015, an asteroid — “Asteroid 15970 Robertbrownlee” — was named in his honor.

Musician and artist

Bonnema said her father was also an accomplished artist and musician, who played French horn, piano and organ and once, during World War II, managed to smuggle a contraband accordion onto a military transport by hiding it with a general’s luggage.

A number of the stained glass windows he made still decorate the United Church of Los Alamos, Bonnema said.

He also found time to circle the globe three times and visit more than 90 different countries, often with his wife and family in tow.

“He loved to travel. To him, that was another avenue for learning,” Bonnema said.

Brownlee is survived by daughters Jeanne Berndsen and husband Johnny, Wenda Brownlee-Josh and husband Jerry, and Bonnema and husband John; son Chipper Brownlee and son Wayne Brownlee and wife Sharon, all of Loveland; foster son Elimelek John of Ebeye, Marshall Islands; 18 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his wife, sisters Donice Buller and Kay Brownlee and grandson Michael Groseclose.

A memorial service will be held Thursday in Loveland. A graveside service will follow on May 12 at the family plot in Stafford, Kansas.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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