David Finkleman

Aerospace Engineering
Class of 1963, BS

Cheyenne Mountain is a Cold War icon built inside a mountain in Colorado Springs that served as the mainstay of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Housing response centers, computers, and myriad tools to carry on the defense of America and Canada, it was the MacGuffin of countless war thrillers and science fiction, from “WarGames” to “Stargate.” David Finkleman, who graduated from Virginia Tech in aerospace engineering in 1963, knows it well.

For 18 years, Finkleman served as Cheyenne’s chief technical officer and director of analysis for NORAD, and U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOMM), as well as U.S. Northern Command following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He was the top civilian in these commands, from 1985 to 2003, trusted advisor to 12 four-star generals, including the U.S. Air Force’s Chuck Horner of Desert Storm fame. He remains the only civilian ever appointed to USSPACECOM’s Battle Staff.

His work, to this day, is admired by those inside and outside the operation. Finkleman was on duty during major events from the losses of space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, to the events of September 11, 2001, when four commercial jets were hijacked and used as makeshift missiles, killing thousands. “That was an intense day,” he said.

On Sept. 11, NORAD was engaged in scheduled live-fly exercises to which Russia responded, as always. Practice quickly shifted to grim reality. “Everyone was mobilized for the exercise. Everyone was in place for the real thing,” said Finkleman. “Russia called their jets back so we could concentrate on our problem. Fearing terrorism, Korean airliners would not land in the U.S. Canadian CF18s guided them into Canada. NATO sent its AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System] aircraft to help the United States.”

The next day, Finkleman was a member of the team that flew the country in a U.S. Air Force Lear Jet to assist in security response matters. A retired U.S. Air Force officer, Finkleman found the experience eerie. “It was like something out of a Stephen King novel,” he said. “The only aircraft in an empty sky.”

In his daily duties, Finkleman was tasked with tracking satellites and rocket launches, estimating trajectories or impact points, detecting new satellites, and assisting satellite operators to avoid collisions. He was responsible for planning fighter interceptor and radar deployments for North American defense and spent time in the Arctic. He had a role in almost every military satellite and strategic defense program for nearly three decades.

“He’s probably one of the top people in terms of taking theory and turning it into applications,” said Chris Hall, former department head of aerospace and ocean engineering at Virginia Tech and now at the University of New Mexico, where he directs the school’s mechanical engineering department. “He’s also a significant leader in the military space business; almost everyone knows him.”

“Dr. Finkleman is a widely recognized expert in space debris,” wrote Kyle “Terry” Alfriend, a fellow Virginia Tech College of Engineering alumnus and a professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, in his nomination letter of Finkleman. “He and colleagues developed a new, fundamental understanding of satellite fragmentation.”

Finkleman’s other accomplishments are far-reaching. He helped lay out the orbit architecture behind GPS, Defense Support Satellite and Space Based Infrared Satellite launch detection systems, space surveillance networks, and more. He also led development of North American and overseas theater missile warning algorithms still used worldwide, which his organization developed during Desert Storm.

Finkleman earned the two highest civilian awards: Distinguished Service medals from both the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense. He also has been honored twice as a Federal Meritorious Executive and twice as a Federal Distinguished Executive. He holds many military awards, including the Legion of Merit. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Astronautical Society, the International Association for Advancement of Space Safety, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is an Academician of the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Institute of Space Law.

Since leaving federal service in 2003, Finkleman has served as senior scientist of the Center for Space Standards and Innovation and convenor of the International Standards Organization Space Operations Working Group. Finkleman and his colleagues formed and operate the Space Data Center, the first and only nongovernmental satellite traffic management capability.

He also contributes to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the International Communications Union, as well as the European Space Policy Institute, the United Nations’ Institute for Disarmament Research, and the Eisenhower Institute for Space and Defense. His expertise is sought internationally, including from China.

Long before that, during the late 1950s, Finkleman was a teenager in Washington, D.C. The stateless nature of the nation’s capital at that time meant that he was not eligible for in-state college tuition anywhere or for the military academies. Yet, Virginia Tech offered the right combination of affordability, military, and academics. Participation in his high school’s ROTC program spurred Finkleman’s interest in a military school, and the Corps of Cadets fit the bill. “It was a lifetime experience,” of the camaraderie he felt in the group.

After Virginia Tech, Finkleman earned a master’s degree in 1964 and a doctoral degree in 1968, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Future astronauts who were his classmates at MIT convinced Finkleman to transfer his Army ROTC commission to the U.S. Air Force. His career was set there

During the Vietnam War, Finkleman was assigned to teach at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. “I was the youngest person on the faculty,” he said. “Some of the cadets were older than me.” He taught as an associate professor of aeronautics, and conducted research and analysis in aircraft aerodynamics and control. He and his colleagues developed optimal maneuvers to evade surface to air missiles in Vietnam.

He was an early member of the Air Force’s High Energy Laser Project and the Airborne Laser Lab.

Finkleman left active duty with the Air Force for the reserve after being recruited by the U.S. Navy Directed Energy Weapons Program. He served an additional 20 years in Air Force Material Command, where he retired a full colonel, assistant director of laboratories.

David Vallado, author of a widely used astrodynamics text, has known Finkleman from the U.S. Air Force Academy to NORAD/ USSPACECOMM, and then AGI, where Vallado is now a senior research astrodynamicist. Vallado remains most impressed with Finkleman’s knowledge of hundreds of people, from the private sector and the military, and his expertise on the latest technology in aircraft, spacecraft, aerodynamics, and astrodynamics.

Finkleman’s level-headedness and calmness also is a shining trait, Vallado said. “He really kind of held everybody together,” Vallado said of Y2K, the change over from 1999 to 2000, as an example, when Finkleman was locked in Cheyenne in case anything went wrong. Finkleman was the technical authority and certifying official for the U.S.-Russia Joint Stability Center over Y2K.

The scope and depth of Finkleman’s career are unique; he has military and civilian, academic and industry, government and private enterprise, as well as international diplomatic and technical stature.

Class of: 1963
Year Inducted into Academy: 2013

Dr. David Finkleman