Distinguished Alumni Award • Charles Spoelhof '51

Charles Spoelhof"You push the button, we do the rest" has been the slogan of the Eastman Kodak Co. since its earliest days.

Sounds simple enough, but behind that button pushing is a lot of complicated technology, some of which Charles Spoelhof '51 was involved with throughout his 32-year career with the company.

Starting as an optical engineer for Kodak in 1954 and retiring as vice president in 1986, Spoelhof helped develop optics, cameras, film and processing techniques used in everything from commercial cameras to reconnaissance missions to space exploration.

Spoelhof was hired as a young engineer just as the Cold War was starting to heat up. Early on he was immersed in designing specialized cameras and film for aerial reconnaissance.

"During the Cold War, Russia was a very closed and threatening society," Spoelhof said in a previous interview with Spark. "We wanted to know what their military buildup was, and this was the most reliable way of finding out."

Spoelhof was involved in several different reconnaissance projects, including the development of a camera that transmitted images from the satellite. His work, though exciting, was intense and highly classified.

"I could tell my wife nothing about what I was doing," said Spoelhof, who still holds security clearance.

A most intense period of work was during the early 1960s, when U.S. spy planes and satellites spotted Soviet missiles being assembled in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy demanded definitive proof of the missiles before confronting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

"Pictures were being taken daily and then flown in and processed. We had photo interpreters that were taking the film right off of the processors," he said. "There were thousands of feet of film."

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The Calvin Alumni Association presents the Distinguished Alumni Award to two each year. Nominations are due by October 1 each year.

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Because of the technological capabilities of the cameras being used, Kennedy was able to confront Khrushchev, and a much larger confrontation was averted.

In fact, at an awards presentation in 2000 at which Spoelhof was recognized as a Pioneer of National Reconnaissance, Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet credited Spoelhof and 45 other honorees with providing the information that prevented World War III. The data collected limited the arms race and initiated the space age because the first application of satellites was for reconnaissance purposes, Tenet said.

The ushering in of the space age created new projects for Kodak, and thereby for Spoelhof. In the late 1960s, he was involved with Kodak's partnership with NASA in developing lunar photography.

He contributed to the design of the lunar orbiter, which resulted in 99 percent of the moon being photographed, and was instrumental in finding landing sites for the Apollo astronauts. In this way, Spoelhof was able to pursue his lifelong interest in astronomy.

"I always dreamed of being a scientist," he said. "Astronomy particularly fascinated me. While in college, though, I knew that I didn't have the resources to continue going to school. Engineering seemed like a more logical choice."

He said he is grateful for the foundation in education he received at Calvin: "I remember taking the philosophy of science course, which very clearly tied science in with faith. Any time you're challenging what has been done before, your faith is very important in keeping you firmly grounded."

Toward the end of his career at Kodak, Spoelhof worked on developing digital technology, which the government wanted for more convenient and less cumbersome reconnaissance.

"The new technology came on like Niagara Falls," Spoelhof said of today's commercial and consumer use of the digital camera. "We expected it to come on a bit sooner and a bit slower."

Shortly after his retirement from Kodak, Spoelhof's expertise was called upon to help fix the Hubble Space Telescope. After its launch in 1990, the $1.5 billion observatory started sending back fuzzy images to Earth. High hopes for the world's largest orbiting public space telescope were dashed.

"I was asked to serve on a commission of six to investigate what went wrong and how to fix it," Spoelhof said. "We found the surface of the primary mirror to be off by 1/50th of the diameter of a human hair. An optical team was called in to 'fix the prescription,' and to this day the telescope is causing the revolution in astronomy that was expected more than 15 years ago."

Spoelhof's connection to Calvin has continued throughout his retirement. He travels from his home near Rochester, N.Y., twice a year to review projects and offer guidance to senior engineering students.

"Each year I also give a seminar to students and it's always on a new topic that I've been studying," he said. "This is very satisfying work for me."

Spoelhof has received numerous honors and awards, including the aforementioned Pioneer of National Reconnaissance recognition, election to the National Academy of Engineers and NASA's Apollo Achievement Award.

"Under his leadership Kodak was able to make significant contributions to our government's efforts in space exploration as well as national defense," wrote Frank Zaffino, a former vice president at Kodak, in support of Spoelhof's nomination. "He is not only a man of great intellectual ability, but also of great character and integrity."

Spoelhof and his wife, Kay, have four children, three of whom are Calvin graduates (Beth is a former art education teacher; Philip is a chemist; Gordon is a computer engineer; and Ronald is an aerospace engineer). Charles and Kay Spoelhof have nine grandchildren.