Harper Elliott Van Ness, Jr. – Captain, United States Navy

Harper Elliott Van Ness Jr., 87, a retired Navy Captain and aviator who contributed to missile development and space research, died of pneumonia March 20 at Carriage Hill of Bethesda nursing home. He was a Bethesda, Maryland, resident.

Captain Van Ness continued his career in the aerospace field after retiring from the Navy in 1969, working with the Project Viking mission to Mars at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and later organizing funding for programs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The Junction City, Kansas, native, who was known as Jack, spent two years at Hardin-Simmons University before graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1942, a year early due to World War II. He served as an ensign aboard the destroyer USS Lansdale for almost two years, leaving a month before it was sunk during a German torpedo bomber attack April 20, 1944.

After becoming a naval aviator in 1945, he joined the VF-20 fighter squadron, the “Fighting Twenty,” as an operations officer on the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea and flew such fighters as Hellcats and Bearcats.

On subsequent assignments in the 1950s, he was a project officer for air-to-air missiles, had responsibility for introducing advanced aircraft equipment for use in fleet air groups and was involved in the testing and development of the Sparrow and Regulus series of missiles and the Bullpup and Corvus missiles. As a jet-qualified pilot, he participated in test firings of air-to-air missiles and missile radar systems.

From 1959 to 1961 at the Office of Naval Operations in Washington, he played a key role in establishing the Naval Space Surveillance System and the project transit field office that provided weather data to the naval fleet. Later, at the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA, he participated in projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. He gained the rank of captain in 1962.

From 1964 to 1966, Captain Van Ness was officer in charge of the Navy office for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory at Air Force Space Systems Division in El Segundo, Calif. For his performance, he received the Navy Commendation Medal.

His last active-duty assignment was as deputy and assistant chief for research at the Office of Naval Research in Washington, for which he received a Meritorious Service Medal.

During his military service, Captain Van Ness received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Annapolis in 1947, a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York in 1950 and a master's degree in business administration from George Washington University in 1967.

After retiring from active duty, he became deputy project manager for Project Viking and contributed to the successful landing of the Viking space probes on Mars. At the completion of the project in 1978, he directed public affairs and educational programs at Langley Research Center. He also was a liaison to Congress and managed major meetings for senior U.S. and foreign officials visiting the center.

Between 1969 and 1985, when he retired from his position, he received two Exceptional Service Medals from NASA.

After returning to the Washington area, Captain Van Ness was a consultant to the development office of the National Air and Space Museum. From 1990 to 1995, he was a part-time employee there. In 2004, the museum honored Capt. Van Ness by adding his name to the Wall of Honor at its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport.

In retirement, he became alumni secretary of his 1943 Naval Academy class and collected stories and other information for inclusion in the alumni magazine “Shipmate.”

During the 1990s, he ran in area charity races. Like the other things he accomplished, “he did it full tilt,” said a son, Elliott Scott Van Ness of Fairfax.

Captain Van Ness was a member of the U.S. Naval Institute, U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, National Parkinson Foundation, U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and Air and Space Society.

Besides his son, survivors include his wife of 59 years, Sue Anderson Van Ness of Bethesda; two other children, John Anderson Van Ness of Washington, Va., and Micheal Moore Van Ness of Canton, Ohio; one sister; one brother; and nine grandchildren.

Captain US Navy (Retired) USNA '43

On March 20, 2007, of Bethesda, Maryland. Beloved husband of Sue Anderson Van Ness; father of Scott, John and Michael; grandfather of Emma, Claire, Elliott, Lucy, Harper, Jackson, and Lenora; brother of Frank Van Ness, Mary Elizabeth Caldwell and the late Peggy Cone.


“Smilin' Jack” was commissioned as an Ensign in 1942, served aboard USS Lansdale in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean until March 1944, and completed flight training and carrier qualifications in August 1945. A member
of VF-20, the “Fighting Twentieth,” he flew Hellcats and Bearcats from the USS Philippine Sea and NAS Charleston.

During the 1950s and 1960s, he pursued further education at the US Navy Postgraduate School, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and George Washington University, earning advanced degrees in electrical and aeronautical engineering and business administration.

His subsequent career in the Navy included work in the Regulus missile development project at the Pacific Missile Test Range, Point Mugu, California, and later assignment to NASA Headquarters and the Office of Naval Research, Washington, D.C. Following his retirement from the Navy in 1969, Jack joined NASA at Langley Research Center to work on The Viking Project, serving as Head of Public Affairs there until 1985. He ultimately completed his long career in aerospace by working on the development staff of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington until 1996.

Always energetic and outgoing, Jack added many volunteer activities to his record of professional accomplishments. Dearest to his heart was his recent work as secretary for the USNA Class of 1943, which focused on researching and chronicling the wartime service of his classmates.

Services will be held 11 a.m., Tuesday, June 12 at The Old Post Chapel, Fort Myer, Virginia. Interment Arlington National emetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the National Air and Space Museum, Office of Development, Suite 3700, MRC 321, Post Office Box 37012, Washington, D.C. 20013-7012, Attn: Marilyn Kozak.

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