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Los Gatos Resident Sheldon 'Shel' Smith Was Famous NASA Investigator

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Sheldon 'Shel' Magill Smith, April 19, 1931-Nov. 27, 2013
Sheldon 'Shel' Magill Smith, April 19, 1931-Nov. 27, 2013
—Submitted by Sheldon K. Smith

Sheldon "Shel" Magill Smith, a resident of Los Gatos, died peacefully in his sleep on Nov. 27, 2013. He was 82.

Shel was born in St. Paul, MN April 19, 1931. He moved to California in his early teens before the outbreak of World War II.

Throughout most of World War II, Shel lived in the San Francisco Presidio as his father, Colonel Sheldon H. Smith, commanded the artillery defenses to the San Francisco Bay.

His father and mother, Sara Matteson Smith preceded Shel in death earlier in his life. 

Shel was married to Muriel A. Astmann from 1962 to 1975 and lived in Los Altos, during that time with their three children, Sheldon K., Jennifer A., and Christina M. Smith.

Shel was honorably discharged in 1966 as a lieutenant from the U.S. Navy with three years of active service in the Korean conflict and nine years with the U.S. Naval Research Reserve. 

Shel held degrees in optometry and physics from the University of California at Berkeley and Davis and became the first NASA principal investigator in astronomy on board an aircraft at NASA Ames Research Center.

Shel's images of solar eclipses graced leading research journals including Nature and Astronautics and Aeronautics. His work was published in more than 20 scientific publications and cited in 50 other publications.

His methods were described in four textbooks. Shel held four patents in infrared photometry, IR coatings and filters.

Shel started at NASA soon after it was formed in 1962, working alongside researchers responsible for some of humanity's greatest space achievements including Apollo, Voyager, Skylab, the Space Station, and the Space Shuttle. 

Shel was an avid skier and cyclist. Shel discovered his love of skiing while a graduate student at UC Davis and started skiing when skis were made of wood, bindings were primarily cable, and ski lifts were mostly rope-tows.

Shel conveyed his love of skiing by managing the Sno-Ball Express ski-bus for 15 years, organizing weekday trips to most of the central Sierra ski resorts. One of Shel's most memorable ski trips were on his 80th birthday. 

As a cyclist, Shel was one of the few who commuted to work on his bicycle during the 1970s, and in retirement, discovered century rides. Among his greatest cycling achievements were completing the Durango Iron Horse Classic at 70 years old pedaling in the snow, and completing ten 200-mile Davis Double Centuries.

Shel was the Almaden Cycle Touring Club vice president for more than 10 years, traveling the state completing 100-mile century rides. Additionally, Shel was one of Los Gatos' leading cycling advocates, working with Caltrans and local municipalities to install a bicycle-pedestrian bridge as a result of the newly built Highway 85 expansion.

Shel is survived by his children Christina M. Bennett of Carlsbad, California, Jennifer A. Smith of Marina, California, and Sheldon K. Smith of Templeton, California, grandson Riley S. Smith, daughter-in-law Patricia S. Burke-Smith, sons-in-law Lt. Col. Michael L. Bennett, USMC (Ret.) and Douglas Holtzman, and longtime friend and companion, Elizabeth Wildman.

Shel touched many people with his enthusiasm, unbound inquisitiveness, and intelligence. 

A celebration of Shel's life was held Dec. 20, 2013 at the Los Gatos Lodge, 50 Los Gatos Saratoga Rd.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Wounded Warriors Foundation or the California Academy of Sciences. 

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Marilyn Leonard January 07, 2014 at 02:31 PM
Condolences to his friends and family.
JoAn Smith January 07, 2014 at 04:30 PM
He lived a wonderful life. Condolences to all his loved ones.

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