Aeronautical Engineering, Class of 1958, BS
Physics, Class of 1968, MS
Engineering Mechanics, Class of 1990, Ph.D.
The first Sputnik was launched during Robert Tolson’s senior year as an aeronautical engineer at Virginia Tech. While listening to the Sputnik beeps on the radio, Tolson and his classmates spent that night trying to figure out how a satellite could even stay in orbit. They could not quite get it, but a couple of them decided then that they wanted to work on this new frontier.
Tolson started work at NASA Langley immediately after his graduation in 1958, and he focused on guidance, navigation, and trajectory analyses needed to insure that robotic and human missions could get to the moon and back. “So, a couple of years before President Kennedy challenged us to fly a man to the moon, I was exploring scenarios on the computer. The computers were slower than today’s hand calculators and one could almost fly to the moon and back before a round trip trajectory could be calculated,” Tolson reminisces.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Tolson was a principal or co-principal investigator on several space missions including the Lunar Orbiter Selenodesy Experiment to map the gravity field of the moon. “This early experience with lunar missions provided the knowledge base for subsequent support and contributions to the Apollo mission,” Tolson says.
After successful human lunar landings, Tolson turned to Mars in 1969. “As navigation manager for Viking, my job was simply to navigate a spacecraft from Earth to a soft landing on Mars,” says the space explorer. Viking had two successful landings in 1976. Later he served on the Viking Radio Science Team that determined Mars’ atmospheric, gravitational, and physical properties.
Similarly, he worked on the Pioneer Venus Aeronomy experiment and three Venus Magellan experiments that explored the upper atmosphere of Venus. He was the originator of the Viking Phobos-Deimos Encounter Experiment during which the Viking Orbiters passed within 30 kilometers of Phobos in 1977 and 100 kilometers of Deimos in 1978. The experiment obtained high-resolution pictures of the two moons of Mars and determined their masses. For this accomplishment, he received NASA’s Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement.
Much of Tolson’s research on planetary missions was “to look for an anomaly that did not agree with the theory and then explain it. This is where most new understanding and knowledge comes from. We learned a lot of good science in the Viking era,” the aeronautical engineer adds. His work on the Viking project led to an Exceptional Service Medal from NASA in 1977.
Tolson’s career at NASA also included heading the planetary physics branch from 1973 until 1976, and the atmospheric science branch from 1976 until 1982. He spent the next two years as the chief scientist, followed by a six-year stint as the head of the interdisciplinary research office. When he served as the chief scientist, Tolson was the first person to hold the position in an official capacity. The two-year rotational job oversaw a $5 to $6 million research program and acted as an ombudsman for NASA employees. When he relinquished this position, Jerry South, also a Virginia Tech aerospace engineering alumnus and member of the Academy of Engineering Excellence, succeeded him.
Tolson’s 32-year career at NASA resulted in an “addiction to space missions. It was like riding a roller coaster. On almost every mission, we discovered something new. And there was a thrill associated with having to find engineering solutions in a fixed amount of time and money.
“Truly, my most exciting experience was watching the first pictures come back from the Viking landing. The cameras on the Viking lander scanned vertically one line every few seconds. Twenty minutes later the first one, two, then three lines were received on the earth and were just black, but then we started seeing something. Eventually, we could see large rocks that we had miraculously safely landed among. Without even knowing it, everyone in the room held our breaths as long as we could. After two or three minutes there was not a dry eye in the whole room. So much energy went into that project. It was a real emotional experience, and it remains emotional today,” Tolson says.
Tolson worked part time while in high school delivering papers, driving a school bus, and working at a marine railway. Although he liked science and math, he never intended to go to college. A few months before graduation, a college educator told him about the co-operative education program NACA Langley offered in conjunction with Virginia Tech, and he took advantage of the combined work-academic plan. (NACA preceeded NASA.)
“That was a great program,” Tolson recalls. “I worked on airplane models that were tested in wind tunnels and flown on rockets from Wallops Island.” He authored his first technical paper as a co-op student on the optimal location of pressure sensors on wings to determine pressure distribution. The paper was sent to the NACA Administrator as an example of the work done by co-ops. His next technical paper, during his senior year, won the national undergraduate Minta Martin Award.
He was so impressed with the educational opportunities through NASA that when the time came for graduation from Virginia Tech, the member of seven honor societies selected the space agency so he could pursue his master’s degree. “I could have gotten 50 percent more money if I had gone with industry. In fact, the starting salary was less than what I could have made at my job after high school, but I was able to enroll in the graduate education program.” He earned his master’s degree in physics in 1963 from Virginia Tech.
Tolson later obtained his doctorate in engineering mechanics through the NASA program in time for him to move into his second career as a university professor. So, as he retired from NASA in 1990, he concurrently earned his Ph.D., and joined the George Washington University faculty for the next 13 years. He spent 2004 as the University of Maryland Liaison Professor at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), a seven-member consortium conducting advanced aerospace and atmospheric research. Today he is the North Carolina State University Langley Distinguished Professor at the NIA.
“I once heard a “Person of the Week” news story about a cleaning lady in New York City who had lived an extraordinary life. Before the story of her many achievements aired on TV she died. At the end of the story, the reporter quoted an old Chinese proverb: “Every time someone dies, a library burns.” That proverb helped me decide on my new career after retiring from NASA. Helping to train the next generation of aerospace engineers is certainly one of the most continually stimulating things I have done in the last 50 years,” Tolson says.
Needless to say, Tolson is excited about President Bush’s challenge to return to the moon, Mars, and beyond. “Very few people get a second chance to do it all over again and maybe even do it better.”
Tolson and his wife, Carol, reside in Yorktown, Virginia.
Class of: 1958 (AE), Class of: 1968 (PHYS), Class of: 1990 (EM)
Year Inducted into Academy: 2006