Reference Entry

Kornegay, Wade M.

Charles W. Jr. Carey

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Kornegay, Wade M.

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physicist, was born in Mount Olive, North Carolina, to Gilbert and Estelle Kornegay, farmers. By the time he reached age six, both of his parents had died and he had gone to live with his maternal grandmother. An excellent student, he was encouraged by his teachers to go to college despite his rather impoverished upbringing, and he managed to obtain a partial scholarship to attend North Carolina Central College (later University), a historically black college in nearby Durham. After receiving a BS in Chemistry in 1956, he studied chemistry and physics for a year at the Bonn University in Germany. In 1957 he married Bettie Hunter, with whom he had three children. That same year he entered the graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley. Upon receiving a PhD in Chemical Physics in 1961, he remained at Berkeley for an additional year as a postdoctoral researcher.In 1962 Kornegay accepted a position with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory as a member of its technical staff. At the time, Lincoln was a major consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense, and its research focused on developing methods for protecting the United States from long-range attacks by the Soviet Union. In the early 1960s the greatest threat in this regard was posed by nuclear warheads delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based within the USSR, so Kornegay was assigned to the radar signature studies group. This group was looking for ways to incorporate radar into an early warning system for detecting ICBMs shortly after launch, but there were a number of problems to overcome. One is that the trajectory of an ICBM carries it into outer space, where radar is of extremely limited usefulness. Another problem was the fact that ICBMs, upon reentering Earth's atmosphere, often release chaff (shards of metal foil that resemble large pieces of confetti), thus acting as a “smokescreen” for the warhead itself. A third problem was the use of other evasive tactics such as electronic countermeasures and decoys. Taken as a whole, such problems made it extremely difficult for a radar detection system to identify the precise location of an individual warhead as it hurtled toward its target.Eventually Kornegay and his colleagues made use of a phenomenon that had been known about for years by atmospheric scientists, the radar signature. When a meteor enters the earth's atmosphere, a radar operator can determine its size and shape from the meteor's bow shock, a radar echo that resembles the wave made in front of a boat as it travels through the water, and the trail of ions it leaves in its wake. Together, these two features give a meteor a specific signature that can be detected by radar. By the late 1960s Kornegay's group had developed methods by which wideband phased-array radars could differentiate between the radar signature of a warhead and the radar signatures of its booster rocket, decoys, and associated debris. Over the next twenty years, Kornegay and his associates developed increasingly sophisticated techniques for detecting radar signatures via wideband radar, thus providing the first line of defense for the United States against an attack by Soviet missiles.In 1971 Kornegay was named technical group leader of Lincoln's radar signature studies group. In 1990 he won the National Society of Black Engineers' Distinguished Scientist of the Year Award. By 1993 he had become head of the radar measurements division. In 2000 he retired to Burtonsville, Maryland, although he continued to work for the Lincoln Laboratory as a consultant for a number of years thereafter. Most of his research remains classified, so little of it has been published; however, over the years the Lincoln Laboratory Journal, which reported on the laboratory's research, published several unclassified versions of his work. In 2003 he was named a Lincoln Laboratory division fellow and a member of the Army Science Board.

Reference Entry.  685 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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