By David Holzel and Justin Katz
Ralph Shapiro, an engineer who became the mission operations manager for NASA’s Nimbus satellite in the early 1960s and whose massive appetite for detail kept him busy well into his 90s as a proposal writer and reviewer, died Nov. 22. He was 95.
“When the mind is working, my body is so energetic,” Shapiro said in a 2017 profile in WJW. “I don’t have any problem when I’m doing my proposal work — working 10 hours a day creatively. And so, I’ve learned that if I keep the mind going, I believe it helps me keep the physical body going. That’s my thesis.”
Shapiro, who lived at Leisure World in Silver Spring, was born in New York. He graduated from the City College of New York in the 1940s with a degree in mechanical engineering. Rejected for the draft because of poor eyesight, he married Ecille Doris Pierce. (She died in 2015.) They moved to Silver Spring in 1960 for a job that eventually closed its Maryland operation.
Shapiro found work on the Nimbus satellite program. Launched in 1964, Its mission was to assist scientists in meteorological research and development. After spending four years helping NASA prepare to launch the satellite, Shapiro became the mission operations manager, in which he worked with scientists to determine which tools and functions the satellite would perform.
As Shapiro coordinated the launch with other NASA stations around the world, he could not help but think about how a “little Jewish boy from the Lower East Side” ended up running this world-wide operation. “I’ll never forget thinking about that,” he said.
Shapiro retired from NASA in 1983. The retirement lasted one week. Shapiro’s launched a new career in proposal writing and reviewing in which Barney Gorin, Shapiro’s longtime colleague, said, “the government will give you a 10-page question and ask for the answer in one page.”
It’s an occupation filled with fine print and following the minutest of details. The government provides a book that instructs companies on how to submit an application to provide a service. The catch is that the book is tremendously large and applications must be filled out with precision, down to the correct font and type size.
It ended up being a good fit for Shapiro.
“I can remember very vociferous arguments [with Shapiro] over the meaning of a comma,” said Gorin. “Every detail had to be right. Nothing was small enough that Ralph was going to let it go.”
By the time of the 2017 profile, Shapiro was focusing on Jewish education and identity. He wrote “Jewish History: 4,000 Years of Accomplishment, Agony and Survival.” He proposed to write a series of Jewish history “tidbits” in Washington Jewish Week. “I put together the attached 40 questions and the 40 questions and answers covering 22 areas of Jewish history that is suitable at Seders involving senior discussion groups,” he wrote in an email in 2017. “Or it may just serve as a short Jewish history course for your readers.”
In 2018, WJW published Shapiro’s quiz as “2,000 years, 52 questions, 1 Jewish history quiz.”
Shapiro was the beloved husband of the late Ecille Doris Pierce Shapiro; devoted father of David Shapiro and Debbie (Darryl) Trupp; loving grandfather of Austin, Jenna, Bianca, Grayson and Leila; and companion of Sue Swift.
Contributions may be made to Shaare Tefila Congregation. At the end of the interview, Shapiro talked about the pleasures of life at age 92. Chief among them, dancing with his “lady friend.”
“You should have seen me last night!” he said, grinning. “It rejuvenates me.”