OBITUARY: Fred Kennedy had a hand in helping explore solar system

Fred Kennedy, pictured in 2014 during an interview with RTE
Fred Kennedy, pictured in 2014 during an interview with RTE

When the Philae spacecraft touched down on a comet late last year, it was partly thanks to the work of Co Londonderry physicist Fred Kennedy.

The mission had involved sending the probe on a journey of roughly four billion miles across the solar system, in order to land on the two-and-a-half mile wide comet.

It was a scientific feat that stunned the world, and was completed a mere five months before his unexpected death, aged 83.

Frederick James Kennedy was born in Belfast on February 4, 1932 to Florence and Thomas Kennedy, and grew up in the village of Bellaghy, to the north-west of Lough Neagh.

Fred’s father had engaged in an array of entrepreneurial activities including running a mobile cinema, a taxi firm, and a coal delivery business.

They were, in the words of Fred’s son Jon, “modest people”.

Educated at Rainey Endowed school, Fred later studied his undergraduate in applied physics and mathematics at Queen’s University Belfast, winning first class honours.

He went on to work at Shorts in Belfast, then moved to north America to pursue his interest in aerospace engineering further.

He worked first with plane-builder Canadair and then the Radio Corporation of America.

He also worked for IBM in both the US and in France on various computer and data-related projects.

He then joined a firm called System Dynamics, and set up an office in Brussels to win contracts with the nascent European Space Agency (ESA).

By 1979, he had decided to branch off with his own firm, and founded Captec in the north Dublin suburb of Malahide.

The company has gone on to win a string of contracts from the ESA, as well as NASA, France’s National Centre for Space Studies, and more.

With the ESA-run Philae project, the firm was asked to double-check all the software which controlled the Rosetta spacecraft.

This was the larger “mothership”, responsible for transporting the Philae landing probe across the solar system.

Later, Captec was also asked to design the software for the communication module on board the Philae probe itself.

“I think he really got a lot of pleasure out of being involved in this project,” said son Jon.

“He really felt it was quite impressive.”

He was “very, very pleased” at the success of the mission, said Jon, adding: “But we had similar missions ... it wasn’t very unusual, the Rosetta mission.”

For example, Captec had also written software which helped land the Huygens probe on Titan (one of Jupiter’s moons) 10 years earlier.

The Irish Times noted that “his achievements would have been more widely known had he been less reluctant to engage in self-promotion”.

Although Jon formally took over the business in 2012, Fred never really retired.

“He used to come down most mornings, and I’d keep his office open for him if he wanted to do it,” said Jon.

“I always thought he’d go sailing or do some other activities, but that’s what he loved doing.”

Nevertheless, he found time to take up gardening, and also had a farm in Donegal.

He died on March 13 in Beaumont Hospital, north Dublin, after falling from the stairs at his house, banging his head, and suffering a brain haemorrhage.

His funeral was on March 18 at St Andrew’s Church of Ireland in Malahide, and he was buried in the churchyard.

He is survived by his widow Anne (nee Marshall, whom he wed in 1957), brother Tom (who still lives in Bellaghy), and three sons: Jon, Nick and Simon.

He is also survived by seven grandchildren: Jenny, Alex and Tim (to Nick), Lexi and Vianney (to Jon), and Cliona and Freddie (to Simon) - the last of whom is named after his grandfather.

An interview with Fred Kennedy last year on RTE can be seen by clicking here.