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Alok Das

Alok Das

Aerospace Engineering
Class of 1982, Ph.D.

When John F. Kennedy informed the world that the U.S. should have a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, he probably had no idea how many young lives he was impacting.

And most certainly Kennedy was not thinking of a community called Uttar Pradesh. However, his words that day would have a special bearing on this northern state in India, more than 8000 miles away, where Alok Das was a teenager. Once Das learned of the challenge to NASA, his own enthusiasm for space exploration never waned.

Some 50 years have now passed since Das first started dreaming about space travel. Today, Das, who became a U.S. citizen, has to his credit “ground-breaking achievements (working for the U.S. Air Force) that have helped resolve urgent warfighter needs, create game-changing prototypes of future Department of Defense (DoD) systems, and advance critical air, space, and cyber technologies,” said Terry Alfriend, the Tees Research Professor at Texas A&M.

Das, a pioneer in the development of smart space structures, has evolved “new critical technologies and created novel concepts for space systems,” Alfriend added. These include: a standard to isolate vibrations that is used now on multiple launch vehicles; the co-invention of Smart Velcro, providing a novel way for high-precision, low cost docking of spacecraft in the micro gravity environment; and a solar sail that reduces weight and cost by a factor of five yet provides more than 100 kilowatts of power for certain Air Force vehicles.

Das, described as a key change agent for the Air Force, has broken through multiple layers of bureaucracy in his position. Since he is often the go-to person to respond to the highest priority needs of the U.S. combat forces, a number of years ago, Das led a business process reengineering team to develop a rapid reaction process to enable the Air Force to urgently respond to such needs. Using this process, he and his team were able to solve a long-standing, often deadly issue of how to land helicopters in a desert environment.

The problem was when a helicopter neared its landing point, the rotors would kick up dust, essentially blinding the pilots and crew. According to Das, “pilots expressed the problem as akin to closing your eyes and trying to maintain your balance on top of a basketball.” In seven months, his team developed a solution using inexpensive synthetic vision capability with high-resolution night imagers and video game visualization technology, on these dust makers.

Immediately after this success, he and his rapid reaction process team developed and tested a small back-packable air vehicle which could locate, track, and engage high-value fleeting targets with surgical precision for the on-going global war on terrorism. “Essentially it was a guided bullet operated by a single soldier in the field,” Das explained. Within seven months, Das had another prototype completed. Other successes have followed suit.

Each day as Das enters the gates to Wright Paterson Air Force Base of Dayton, Ohio, where he now serves as senior scientist for design innovation, his excitement remains apparent. “The Air Force has given me the ultimate job,” smiled Das, now entering his fourth decade working with the agency.

Das came from an engineering family. His father conducted the work of a traditional civil engineer, working on the design and building of dams and bridges. As a boy, Das had a truly cosmopolitan upbringing, attending a British-style boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas but run by Irish missionaries. Upon graduation, he attended the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, basically a small elite graduate school with only three undergraduate departments. Das entered as one of only 80 total students in the freshman class.

The curriculum was designed to move quickly. Das earned his undergraduate degree in electronics and communications engineering in three years and within five years of starting, had his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. Graduating as the number-one student in his class, Das was brought quickly on board by the Indian Space Research Organization as an engineer to design attitude control systems for some of India’s initial earth observation satellites.

His two-year stint at this organization made him realize he “wanted to learn more.” So he applied to a half a dozen schools, and opted to attend Virginia Tech.

Ironically, the man who was revolving his career around space travel experienced his first true airplane ride, not exactly a smooth non-stop from New Delhi, India to Blacksburg, Virginia. He admitted he was once given an earlier ride while in college in what he called a “toy aircraft” where the cars below him moved faster than the plane. That ride was supposed to provide him with a sense of aerodynamics, but mostly, it made him feel woozy, he laughed.

The irony of Das studying at the Blacksburg campus was his landing as a doctoral student of Henry C. Kelly, the Christopher C. Kraft Professor of Aerospace Engineering. Kraft was the person who gulped a few times when Kennedy announced intentions to have U.S. astronauts land on the moon. It fell to Kraft, a 1944 aerospace graduate of Virginia Tech, to lead the operational planning for this U.S. NASA mission.

When Kraft later recalled this challenge for a magazine article for Virginia Tech, he said, “With all due respect to the memory of John F. Kennedy, I must tell you that I thought the man had taken leave of his senses. We had never even placed a man in orbit. And yet, here in front of television cameras beaming his message all over the world was the President of the United States committing us to a lunar landing.”

Obviously, Kraft’s first take on Kennedy’s speech was a bit different from Das’. As the Kraft Professor, Kelly had pioneered a way to improve the sequencing of successively improved trajectories, having a profound impact on the U.S. space program. “It was great to work for such a brilliant and nice man,” Das said. “He treated us all like equals, often inviting us to his home… I was driven by what he wanted us to do. Time was not a determining factor. He would say, ‘Try this, try that.’ My training was very mathematical.”

In two years, Das earned his doctorate, saying, “I had no other life. I just worked.”

Just before graduation, Kelly paid a surprise visit to Das at his austere basement office in Randolph Hall. Kelly asked Das to go home and change out of his t-shirt and to return to meet an Air Force captain named Bob Preston. Preston was looking for a person with a dynamics and control background, fitting Das’ resume. Kelly had also highly recommended Das to Preston. But since Das was still a foreign national at the time, Virginia Tech had to facilitate the interview and his subsequent hiring.

So he became a Virginia Tech research associate placed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and his green card was issued in 1983. Then the Air Force could hire him as a civil servant in July of 1984. Immigration laws forced him to wait five years to apply for his U.S. citizenship, an action he pursued aggressively.

“President Reagan had announced Star Wars, and there were things I could not see” in the labs, Das acknowledged. “Our lab was heavily involved …and I wanted to jump in.” So in 1989, along with some 5000 people at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a judge performed a mass swearing in of the new group of U.S. citizens, including Das.

That same year, he started splitting his time between Edwards and the Phillips Laboratory at the Kirkland, New Mexico Air Force Base. He, his wife, and son eventually moved to Albuquerque in 1993.

Projects started leapfrogging. In 1994, he was part of a revolutionary NASA program that demonstrated the potential of small spacecraft to greatly reduce the cost of future civil space missions. In 1995, he led the DoD participation in the formation and implementation of the NASA New Millennium Program, pioneering NASA’s vision of frequent, affordable, capable scientific missions in the 21st Century.

Since the fall of 1997, Das has been exploring the potential of using small- and micro-satellites to perform future DoD missions. He played a pivotal role in the development of TechSat21, described by the Air Force’s chief scientist as having the “potential of dramatically impacting future warfighting capability.”

In 1998, Das created and led the Innovative Concepts Group, creating many of the Air Force’s high-visibility, multi-agency transformational space concepts such as TechSat21 and XSS-11. In the last decade, Das has spearheaded the development of a technology investment strategy for the DoD’s $15 billion transformational communications program, a critical component of net-centric warfare. He led the definition of the TacSat-2, the Air Force’s premier experiment to enable the use of small satellites for tactical operations. He was a member of NASA’s $300 million Aerospace Technology Enterprise review committee on pioneer revolutionary technology, the incubator for revolutionary technologies for future NASA missions.

Das is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of the Air Force Research Laboratory. The International Society for Optics and Photonics awarded him its Smart Structures and Materials Achievement Award in 2004 and, in 2012, he won the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award.

Class of: 1982
Year Inducted into Academy: 2015