Kyle T. Alfriend
Class of 1962, BS; 1967, Ph.D.
Kyle “Terry” Alfriend has enjoyed more than 40 years of diverse experience in the aerospace field, yet he finds his most challenging work still lies ahead. Two of his current projects are space surveillance and the dynamics and control of swarms of small satellites flying in a precise formation.
A well-respected researcher, his contributions led to the highest honor for an engineer, membership in the National Academy of Engineering. He is also a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Astronautical Society (AAS).
As a child he became intrigued with the aerospace industry as did many of his peers growing up in the Sputnik era. The Danville, Virginia, native entered Virginia Tech in 1958, and selected the engineering mechanics (EM) curriculum to complement his interests. His scholarship attracted the attention of the department who would remember him long after his graduation in 1962.
He secured his first employment with the aviation giant Lockheed, and settled with his wife Bonnie in California. The company assisted him in his pursuit of a master’s degree from Stanford that he obtained in 1964. Subsequently, Lockheed transferred Mr. Alfriend to Huntsville, Alabama. He soon felt an itch to get back to school and stopped in Blacksburg on a trip back to Virginia. His mid-August meeting with Dan Pletta, then the EM department head, proved fortuitous. “Dan told me he had a fellowship available,” Mr. Alfriend recalls, so he made a hasty decision to quit Lockheed and return to Virginia Tech to obtain his doctorate, again in EM.
With a Ph.D. attached to his name, Dr. Alfriend moved in 1967 to Cornell University for the next six years as an assistant professor of theoretical and applied mechanics. In 1973, he joined the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center where he was awarded a one- year research associateship by the National Academy of the Sciences to conduct research on methods of orbit prediction and determination. In 1974, he became the director of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Advanced Systems Branch of the Space Systems Division. His group worked on advanced technologies and techniques that had applications to space systems. In 1983, he joined the Office of Development and Engineering of the Central Intelligence Agency where he was responsible for the development and application of advanced technologies to intelligence space systems.
In 1985, Dr. Alfriend opened the office for the General Research Corp., now known only as GRC, in northern Virginia. He quickly expanded its operations to 15 technical staff and approximately $2 million of annual funding, mostly in the area of advanced technologies for space systems.
After nine years, Dr. Alfriend was named to the Navy TENCAP Space Chair for three years in the Space Systems Academic Group at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He moved to Texas A&M in 1997 to head its department of aerospace engineering. Within two years of his arrival the department’s research budget increased 50 per cent. He was also named chairman of the board of the Texas Space Grant Consortium in 1998. In 2001, the university made him the Wisenbaker II Professor of Aerospace Engineering.
Today, Dr. Alfriend remains affiliated with Texas A&M, holding its Distinguished Research Chair as of Sept. 1, 2003. He resides in Pebble Beach, California, on a 100 percent self-generated research salary. One of his main projects is the dynamics and control of formation flying satellites. Instead of one system, the NASA funded plan calls for the placement of a number of small satellites into orbit, traveling at four miles per second, 40 to 50 meters apart. “We will need to know the relative position of the satellites down to millimeters,” Dr. Alfriend explains. These systems should be easier to repair and should prove more economical.
His second main challenge today is to work on an Air Force contract to catalog space debris. Some 10,000 objects are currently tracked in space, but to protect structures such as the space station, 10 times that number must be kept under surveillance. Previously, Dr. Alfriend developed a new method for correlating many of the tracks of objects detected by the Space Surveillance system that do not correlate to objects in the Space Object catalog. He also created a technique for estimating the space object population and distribution.
Among his numerous honors, Dr. Alfriend received the 1998 AIAA Mechanics and Control of Flight Award, the 1989 AAS Dirk Brouwer Award for outstanding contributions in space flight mechanics and astrodynamics, and the 1981 Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award. From 1992-95 he was the editor-in-chief of the AIAA Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics.
Class of: 1962 BS, 1967 Ph.D.
Year Inducted: 2004