|John J. Hillman was a
gourmet chef, floral
designer and certified
copyist of paintings.
John J. Hillman
By Patricia Sullivan Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, February 18, 2006
John J. Hillman, 67, a NASA astrophysicist who did work
on the atmospheres of planets, the composition of comets
and the preservation of the Star-Spangled Banner, died
of ocular melanoma Feb. 12 at his home in Columbia.
Dr. Hillman was a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard
Space Flight Center and was also a gourmet chef,
award-winning floral designer and certified copyist at the
National Gallery of Art, where he particularly enjoyed
working on the paintings of William Harnett and Orazio
His interest in art led him to learn of the National Museum
of American History's project to preserve the
Star-Spangled Banner, the American flag that withstood
the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.
He called Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the museum's
senior textile conservator, and offered her a way to
examine the flag using infrared light. He had in mind
NASA's one-of-a-kind Acousto-Optic Imaging Spectrometer, which had been
developed for space research but could reveal deteriorated and soiled areas of the
flag not visible to the eye. It was an opportunity to gather information in a way we
wouldn't have been able to gather in any other way and at a time before we would
have lost that opportunity, Thomassen-Krauss said. Because the flag was on
display, the team was required to work at night. The camera could see layers of
brushwork and underdrawings and could determine the pigment used in the paint,
which is useful in distinguishing an authentic piece from a forgery. Dr. Hillman noted
at the time that the technology also could be used in skin cancer research and for
analysis of prehistorictes. Thomassen-Krauss and her team worked with Dr. Hillman
for two weeks, just before the flag was taken down for restoration. My team still
regards working with him as one of the highlights of our work, she said.
As interested as he was in that project, his work was mainly in the heavens. He
helped develop state-of-the-art instrumentation used for astronomy, and in 2002 he
told Scientific American magazine about an airborne laboratory carrying high-speed
cameras, radio receivers and human observers that was tracking the Leonid meteor
storm over Spain. The work, Dr. Hillman said, promises an important and unique
database for the development of instruments targeted at in situ sampling of cometary
materials and for the future definition of comet missions.
This was a man who loved to learn. When one of his daughters started a floral shop,
Dr. Hillman helped out and entered a contest at Washington's home and garden
show for flower arranging. He won first and second place, his wife said.
He was born in Fort Jay, N.Y., and grew up in Washington, graduating from
Chamberlain Vocational High School in 1956. He went to college full time for one
semester, married in 1958, then combined family and night school with work for the
next 20 years. He received three degrees from American University, all in physics: a
bachelor's in 1967, a master's in 1970 and a doctoral in 1975.
Dr. Hillman joined NASA in 1969, working in a variety of positions in atomic and
molecular physics, metrological standards, atmospheric sciences, astronomy and
astrophysics before his last position, as senior scientist in the Laboratory for
As visiting senior research scientist at the University of Maryland's Department of
Astronomy, he was co-director of the College Park Scholars in Science, Discovery
He was a member of the Church of the Resurrection in Burtonsville. He was a
member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American
Astronomical Society, American Physical Society and American Geophysical Union.
He wrote or co-wrote 80 papers for publication.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Patricia A. Hillman of Columbia; five children,
Kathleen Martin of Sykesville, Karen Stott of Sykesville, Kimberly Housman of
Marriottsville, John Hillman of Eldersburg and James Hillman of Mount Airy; a brother,
William Hillman of Fulton; and 12 grandchildren.