William Rudlof Muehlberger (1923-2011)

Dr MuelbergerWilliam (Bill) Rudlof Muehlberger, professor emeritus, died of natural causes Sept.14, 2011.

Muehlberger taught at The University of Texas at Austin for nearly 40 years before officially retiring in 1992. He also taught geology to multiple generations of NASA astronauts beginning with Apollo.

“First and foremost, he was a teacher,” said his son Eric. “He loved to teach and had a motivated and captivating audience” in the astronauts.

Bill Muehlberger’s shadow looms large in the field of geology. He published the Basement Rock Map of the United States with the USGS in 1968. He published the definitive Tectonic Map of North America, for which he received the 1998 Best Paper Award from the Structure/Tectonics Division of the Geological Society of America.

“[It’s] an award-winning map that hangs in probably every geoscience building in the country,” said Sharon Mosher, dean of the Jackson School and longtime friend and colleague of Muehlberger.

He conducted field investigations all over the world. He helped train nearly every class of astronaut from Apollo through Skylab and on to recent shuttle crews. He was principal investigator for Apollo 16 and 17, the two missions in which astronauts carried out significant geological research.

He began teaching geology at The University of Texas in 1954. During his tenure as professor and chairman of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, he supervised 61 master’s and 26 doctoral students. His students worked on problems in tectonics, structural geology and petrology in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, the southern mid-continent basement, Vermont, the Canadian Rockies, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Turkey, and the Moon. He and his students made the first geological maps of Honduras, as well as parts of Guatemala and Mexico.

For his work over the years, he received the Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and the Public Service Medal from NASA, as well as the Houston Oil and Minerals Corporation Faculty Excellence Award. In 2009, he was inducted into the Jackson School’s Hall of Distinction.

In 2010, a research symposium was organized in his honor, bringing together over 120 colleagues, friends and former students to share the fruits of their research in fields as diverse as North American tectonics, Central American and Caribbean geology, nuclear waste storage in Japan, natural resources, lunar geology and human exploration of space. Speakers and attendees included two Apollo astronauts (Charles Duke and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt), three presidents of the Geological Society of America, three university deans, and representatives of state and federal government agencies, universities, petroleum and mining companies, and consulting firms.

Ensuring that his legacy endures in the school, the William R. Muehlberger Graduate Fellowship in Structural Geology/ Tectonics was established the same year to support “a graduate student possessing the greatest breadth and depth of geologic knowledge and who is focused on a research project aimed at resolving an important structural geology or tectonic problem.” Within a few short months of establishing the fellowship, donors contributed the full $250,000 needed to fully fund the endowment. The first recipient was John S. Singleton, a doctoral student.