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Jack Kroehnke, the first public affairs officer at NASA's White Sands, NM, Test Facility, and later one of 42 artists in a Smithsonian Institution exhibit of space exploration art, died Monday, November 28, 2016 at his home in Albuquerque. He was 85.
Kroehnke, born in Chicago February 9, 1931, studied art under muralist Otto Hake at the Chicago Institute of Applied Art and with painter-lithographer Elmer Schooley at New Mexico Highlands University. It was a degree in journalism, Highlands's class of 1953 that led him into the information field however, first as wire editor for the five-member New Mexico Newspapers, Inc., then as editor of the Silver City Daily Press. In early 1957 Kroehnke was hired as news director for the White Sands Missile Range public information office.
His interest in the up-and-coming manned space program was cemented when astronauts, Alan Shepard and Wally Schirra came to White Sands to witness the launch of the Redstone Ballistic missile, the rocket that sent Shepard into sub-orbital flight in May, 1961. Kroehnke transferred from the WSMR PIO to NASA's under-construction facility in 1963. Assignments in addition to information on tests of the Project Apollo lunar module engines included a geology field trip to Loa Alamos with Group 2 astronauts, media center duty at the equally new Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston for the Gemini 4 flight with Ed White's historic extra vehicular activity, and a week at sea on a US Navy ship in the Atlantic recovery zone for the scrubbed Gemini 6 mission. Kroehnke moved full-time to Houston in March, 1966.
With the successful conclusion of the two-man Project Gemini and the three-astronaut moon-landing Project Apollo under way, the January 27, 1967, Launchpad fire that killed astronauts White, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, and Roger Chaffee brought man-in-space to a sudden stop, and Kroehnke's interest in art found new life. He left NASA in 1968 to paint but returned shortly to the space program as director of public affairs for Grumman Aerospace, Houston Operations: Grumman was prime contractor for the lunar module, engine tests for which Kroehnke had documented at the White Sands facility.
When the moon-landing series closed in December 1972, Kroehnke turned his full attention to an art career that had blossomed on a part-time basis during Apollo. His main subjects were the Galveston Bay waterfront to the east of the space center, and the New Mexico desert and mountains around Las Cruces where he had lived for nearly ten years. Honors included various art show awards, a presentation to the Governor of Texas, and nomination as Texas Artist of the Sesquicentennial Year, 1986.
Long an admirer of the NASA Art Program, an on-going project recording the history of the nation's space activities through the eyes of artists in various media, Kroehnke was accepted as a contributor and assigned to chronicle the launch and landing of Space Shuttle STS 26 in March of 1986, two months after the flight of Challenger with Teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe.
As tragedy once again halted manned spaceflight, Kroehnke turned his artist's eye to astronaut training activities. His acrylic painting "Weightless" of a space-suited astronaut in the underwater facility simulating the zero gravity of space at Johnson Space Center was accepted for the Smithsonian's "Vision of Flight". The three year world traveling exhibit included work by Norman Rockwell, Jamie Weyeth, Albuquerque's Wilson Hurley, and Santa Fe painter/sculptor Dan Namingha.
Survivors include his daughter, Chris Goodwin in El Paso; sisters, Beth Carveth in Lincoln, NE and Kate Montgomery of Greenbush, MI; and long-time companion, Carolyn Sanborn of Albuquerque. His brother, Bob, 83 passed October 19, 2016 in Wheaton, IL.
We would like to thank the doctors and nurses on Presbyterian 7th floor for their care. Special thanks to John Van Dyke of Armada Hospice of New Mexico who was a stalwart and invaluable caregiver. Donations to that organization would be more than welcome.