Clayton Wilbur Watson 


Feb. 24, 1933 – May 3, 2023

Dr. Clayton Wilbur Watson, who lived in Pagosa Springs, Colo., for more than 22 years, died Wednesday morning, May 3, at Pine Ridge Extended Care Center at the age of 90. His wife, Ruth Watson, was at his side. He is also survived by his daughter, Charloe Williams (Pagosa Springs); his son, Clayton A. Watson, and his wife, Cinde (Aledo, Texas); and his son, Scott Watson, and his wife, Brandy (Jemez Springs, N.M.); as well as six grandsons and seven great-grandchildren. 

Clayton was born Feb. 24, 1933, in the Ozarks of Missouri in a one-room shack behind the family store. He was the eldest of three children: himself; a brother, Gordon Watson; and a sister, Etta Kay Watson, both deceased. 

In high school, Clayton earned a scholarship which allowed him to enter Washington University in St. Louis as a chemical engineering major. While there, he met a nursing student, Ruth Thomas, on a blind date, and on March 19, 1955, they were married in her hometown of Galena, Mo. After their graduation, they moved to Ames, Iowa. There Clayton earned his master’s degree in chemical engineering and in 1960 the first nuclear engineering Ph.D. ever awarded at Iowa State University with a pioneering thesis centered around Monte Carlo 3D calculations of nuclear reactions. 

His first work after his doctorate was for Westinghouse in Pittsburg, Penn. Soon after, he started work at RocketDyne in California and then moved his young family to the opposite coast to be a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Florida. There he initiated one of the first conferences to focus on nuclear propulsion and edited an enormous publication of the papers presented. That work led to a sabbatical in Los Alamos, N.M., at the laboratory where the atomic bomb was invented. He returned after a year to join the lab as part of the Critical Assemblies (N) Division. 

Clayton came to the lab in the early 1960s to join a new program — Project Rover — with the goal of creating a nuclear-powered rocket to go to Mars. Working alongside many lifelong friends and poker buddies, Clayton specialized in modeling of gamma ray and neutron environments for nuclear control rods using Monte Carlo calculations by computers in a time when computers were people rather than machines. Not only was he performing theoretical work, but he often went with his team to the Nevada Test Site at Jackass Flats to demonstrate that these new rocket engines were safe and would not explode like the original atomic bombs. 

Project Rover ultimately lost funding in 1973, notwithstanding the proven concept that nuclear engines could transport astronauts to Mars. Ironically, interest in nuclear-powered flights to Mars has recently been resurrected, and they may soon be a reality. 

During this time, the last of Clayton’s children was born and the family ultimately stayed in Los Alamos, N.M. 

After the demise of Project Rover, Clayton worked on 17 other projects at the lab, culminating in many published works and another proud accomplishment for him with the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars”) under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. With many trips to Washington, D.C., and consultations about his calculations and analyses — this time on directed energy beams to use in space to destroy enemy missiles — the program was instrumental in the split up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. 

When the time came for him to retire after 32 years with the lab, Clayton and Ruth chose to move permanently to a favorite vacation area in southern Colorado, Pagosa Springs. 

The last couple of years of Clayton’s life were spent at Pine Ridge Extended Care Center following a series of serious falls. He lived a long and productive life, was a tireless provider for his family, and will be deeply missed by them. 

Psalm 121:1-2: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.”

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Humane Society of Pagosa Springs in memory of the many mixed breed and abandoned dogs Clayton and Ruth brought into their home over the years: Humane Society of Pagosa Springs, P.O. Box 2230, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147.