Albert Roach Hibbs (October 19, 1924 – February 24, 2003) was an American mathematician and physicist affiliated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He was known as “The Voice of JPL” due to his gift for explaining advanced science in simple terms. He helped establish JPL’s Space Science Division in 1960 and later served as its first chief. He was the systems designer for Explorer 1, the USA’s first satellite, and helped establish the framework for exploration of the Solar System through the 1960s. Hibbs qualified as an astronaut in 1967 and was slated to be a crew member of Apollo 25, but he did not go to the Moon because the Apollo program ended with the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
Hibbs earned bachelor’s degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1945, having attended Caltech under the sponsorship of the US Navy‘s V-12 program. He then obtained a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1947.
While working as a staff member at JPL, in 1955 Hibbs received a PhD in physics from Caltech with a thesis on “The Growth of Water Waves Due to the Action of the Wind“. His thesis advisor was the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. Hibbs became close friends with Feynman and together they published the textbook Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals (McGraw-Hill, 1965), which is still a standard reference on the path integral formulation.
Hibbs joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1950. He became head of JPL’s Research and Analysis Section and in this role he was the systems designer for America’s first successful satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. After NASA took over JPL in 1958, Hibbs worked to establish the framework for planetary missions for the next decade.
In 1960 Hibbs was placed in charge of forming and leading the Space Science Division at JPL. As the division became successful Hibbs emerged as the “Voice of JPL”.
From 1962 to 1967 Hibbs left JPL to work on special assignment as staff scientist for the Arms Control Study Group (ACSG) of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), studying how arms-control treaties could be monitored from space.
From the late 1960s to the 1980s he became the authoritative source of information on JPL missions including the Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon; the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury; the Viking missions to Mars; and the Voyager missions to the outer planets.
As a five year old, Hibbs decided that he wanted to go to the Moon. He qualified as an astronaut in 1967 despite being 7 years over the age limit, and he was slated to be a crew member of Apollo 25. The Apollo program ended at 17, denying him his dream. He remained philosophical about the disappointment saying “Even though I didn’t make it to the moon, my machines did.”