Rossiter, who later served as director of the Duke News Service and assistant vice president at Duke University's office of public affairs until his retirement in 2001, died Monday at Vidant Beaufort Hospital in Washington, N.C., the university officials said.
Rossiter joined United Press International as a staff writer in 1959 and was appointed science editor in 1973. In his more than 33 years with the company, he covered the science beat, becoming a well-respected chronicler of the U.S. space program -- covering the Apollo moon flights, space shuttle flights and unmanned planetary missions.
He handled major stories such as the outbreak of Legionnaire's disease in Pennsylvania, then-pioneering artificial heart transplants and the Three Mile Island, Pa., nuclear accident. His beat took him to the South Pole, West Africa and the wreck site of the USS Monitor in the Atlantic Ocean.
He was named executive editor in 1987 after three top UPI editors left the company amid significant staffing cuts. Rossiter was serving as executive vice president, responsible for the company's editorial operations worldwide when he left UPI in 1992 for Duke.
Rossiter remained active at Duke after his retirement in 2001, working part-time as an associate dean in the school's Pratt School of Engineering.
Following his retirement, the school renamed its annual award for outstanding reporting on higher education in North Carolina, calling it the Green-Rossiter Award, to honor both Rossiter and William Green, who served as director of university relations and vice president at Duke.
His office at Duke featured a framed newspaper clipping of his account of the U.S. moon landing in 1969, the university said.
"As a NASA-obsessed kid, Al's voice coming over the radio was one I was very familiar with growing up -- and I was proud to work for the same enterprise as he did," fellow Unipresser Dan Rosenbaum said.
Rossiter received numerous awards for his reporting on space and science, including the Grady-Stack Medal in 1987 from the American Chemical Society. He was a finalist in NASA's Journalist-in-Space program.
"In addition to the many people who read Al Rossiter's reports through decades of the U.S. space program, many more listened to him describe it in radio news reports and his weekly and daily space and science features for [the wire service's] radio network," said Tom Foty, now with CBS Radio and formerly executive editor of UPI Radio in New York and Washington. "Al was a versatile multimedia reporter in the best sense, well before that description was commonly used."
"Al was not only a great reporter, Unipresser and person, but a stabilizing force in the waning days in the [Washington bureau]," said Dave Rosso, a former UPI reporter, now city editor with the Eureka (Calif.) Times-Standard.
Frank Csongos, former UPI Washington bureau chief and State Department correspondent, said: "Rossiter was a quintessential wire service man. Quick, accurate, no nonsense."
CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood called Rossiter "a great Unipresser and a helluva newsman. A gentleman journalist and the best mentor a young space reporter could ever have."
Former UPI Senior Editor Bruce Cook said Rossiter's UPI byline "was a familiar one around the world. I particularly remember his outstanding coverage of the space missions, including the first moon landing, Apollo 11 in 1969."
Rossiter's reporting earned him the 1987 Grady-Stack Medal from the American Chemical Society.
He was a member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, National Association of Science Writers and the Education Writers Association. He served for five years as a member of the national advisory board of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland and later was a member of the advisory board for the Graduate Medical Journalism Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Born March 2, 1936, in Elmira, N.Y., Rossiter graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in geology in 1958.
He is survived by his wife Sylvia, two children and one grandchild.
A reception honoring Rossiter will be held Thursday at Hillside Funeral Service & Cremations in Washington, N.C.