Peter R. Kurzhals
Class of 1960, BS; Class of 1962, MS; Class of 1966, Ph.D.
Three-time Hokie alumnus Peter Kurzhals has more than 50 years of experience in human spaceflight, ranging in time from the creation of NASA to the early manned missions culminating in the Apollo program and the moon landings, followed by the Space Shuttles, the International Space Station, and the new private space commercialization initiatives.
His life is a long, fascinating journey for a boy with historical roots tied to Nazi-occupied Germany.
Kurzhals was born in Berlin in 1937, when Europe was sinking into what would become World War II. Two years later, his father, an officer in the Luftwaffe, was transferred to Pilsen, Chechoslovakia. His family lived there under continuous bombing until 1945, when his father’s plane was shot down and he was declared missing in action.
Soon, the Russian Army started shelling the town, and Kurzhals and his family hitched a ride on a German army convoy leaving for neighboring Austria. They had to walk the last 50 miles to Vienna after their truck broke down. The next day, the Russian lined up all the remaining Germans within Pilsen and shot them. Years later, now in his 70s, Kurzhals simply said of his childhood, “It was rough.”
After the war, Kurzhals returned to school. As his classes had all been suspended during the past few years, he was two years behind in his education. His mother later remarried an American sergeant, and the family moved to Hampton, Virginia. Kurzhals spoke no English, but did know two phrases, “Yes, sir” and “No sir.” Both were picked up from his interactions with American GIs serving in Europe. When he was asked by the Hampton High School principal if he was ready to start school, Kurzhals luckily chose the affirmative, “Yes, sir,” and jumped two grades.
Despite not speaking English, he could read it, and got As on all his written tests, but flunked all the oral questions. He learned quickly. “After a month in class, I was fluent in English,” he said.
During high school, Kurzhals worked three jobs to save money for college, at a bowling alley setting pins, as a lifeguard, and as a gardener at a local hotel. He started college in 1955 at Virginia Tech, his best financial choice, with the intent of becoming a forest ranger. “I had done a lot of hiking and loved the wilderness,” he said. “I figured I would have a house on a hill and enjoy the outdoors.”
Finances changed his plans. Kurzhals had to co-op, working every other academic quarter to pay for his school expenses. Engineering offered the best opportunities, so he opted for aeronautics, proving to be a fortuitous choice. He landed a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor of NASA, in Langley, Virginia. His future was set.
Kurzhals was at NACA when Sputnik was launched in 1957. While the Soviets celebrated, America quickly responded with the Space Task Group under Bob Gilruth, the man who helped lead the formation of NASA and later pushed the idea that America should put a man on the moon to then-president John F. Kennedy. Kurzhals strongly supported those initiatives, and offered to help by supporting research on space stations at NASA Langley.
While Kurzhals earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Virginia Tech, he developed and patented a double-gimbaled Control Moment Gyro (CMG) system to control the attitude of spacecraft with significant cost savings. After a $50 million advance from NASA headquarters to build a prototype system, Kurzhals and his team traveled to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), in Huntsville, Alabama, to sell the system to flight center management for use on the Skylab space station.
At the presentation, Kurzhals was seated at one end of a massive conference table, facing down approximately 50 engineers, managers, and office types from Marshall. Kurzhals, chuckling as he reminisced, said reaction was swift and certain: “The MSFC guys answered back as expected, ‘It will never fly. We don’t think it will work.’ ” But one voice rang out in support, in broken, accented English. And not from table before him. “This voice came down,” said Kurzhals, laughing heavily as he recalled the story, “from the balcony: ‘I like it. We will build it!’ And it was Wernher von Braun.”
The late Von Braun was the ex-German rocket scientist who, following World War II and his surrender to Allied forces, repatriated to America and helped lay the foundation for the U.S. space program and NASA itself. “If any one man can be credited with putting the United States on the moon first, it is him,” Kurzhals said.
“Von Braun became his mentor, and Peter worked with him for a number of years,” said William Grossman, an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech now living in Berlin and a longtime friend of Kurzhals. The two attended classes together at Virginia Tech and have remained in touch with each other.
Kurzhals recalled one incident during that period when he flew on von Braun’s personal DC-3 for a trip to review NASA’s Skylab systems. Just as the plane was about to take off, von Braun – serving as his own pilot – asked if anyone had ever flown a plane before. Kurzhals told von Braum that he had several flight lessons under his belt. Von Braun invited Kurzhals to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. As the plane was going down the runway, von Braun turned to Kurzhals and said, “Peter, you’ve got it,” and released the controls. “I took off at such a steep angle that I spilled all the drinks the engineers were drinking in the cabin,” said Kurzhals, again laughing at his own story.
In 1969, Kurzhals was transferred to NASA headquarters as chief of the guidance and control branch, and soon was promoted to director of the electronics division, with a budget of $60 million per year and 500 employees at 10 NASA centers. Here, he managed the successful test of the Space Shuttle Digital Fly By Wire system on an F-8 experimental aircraft, the first flight of an all fly-by-wire system in the world. The technology was later adopted by virtually all commercial and military aircraft, as well as by space craft such as the Space Shuttle.
He also initiated NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Program and the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Program, which developed the precursors to today’s planetary rovers, such as the Curiosity ’bot now maneuvering itself around Mars.
From 1979 to 1980, Kurzhals directed NASA’s Space Division, with a $100 million budget and 1,000 employees. From 1981 to 1984, he was assistant director of mission operations at Goddard Space Flight Center, where he managed mission control center upgrades and led the transition to an online information capability to greatly reduce operating costs.
In 1984, Kurzhals went private, first at Booz Allen, where he developed a fully-automated Management Information System, an early version of Microsoft’s Outlook, for NASA. He joined McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. in 1985, first as director of utilization and operations and then later as director of subcontracts for the Space Station Freedom project, with a budget of $400 million per year. In 1992, he was promoted to director of Advanced Space Flight Programs, leading research into future human space exploration.
When Boeing purchased McDonnell Douglas in 1995, Kurzhals was named director of Boeing’s product support for the International Space Station, managing a $600 million budget. He also served on the International Astronautical Federation’s Space Station Committee, and on the board of directors of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the National Management Association. He held many executive positions at Boeing on both the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle programs.
By his retirement in 2011, Kurzhals served as director of systems and software for the Boeing’s space exploration division, and had won many awards including AIAA Fellow, and Orange County (California) Engineer of the Year.
Grossman remembered thinking during his own college years when he served in the Corps of Cadets with Kurzhals that he was among potential greatness. “He was a bright kid, it was pretty clear he was going places,” said Grossman. “When he was a graduate student, he began talking about space stations and control of space stations long before he ever got into that at Langley Research Center. I would call him a visionary.”
Kurzhals, for his part, is humble. “When I got into engineering I always looked for challenging jobs that I could enjoy,” he said. He did exactly that and more, now retired and working on side business projects.
Recently, Kurzhals has focused on sharing his leadership experience through several highly acclaimed training tools including the NMA Leadership Evaluation and Development System, or LEADS for short, the Career Counseling Catalog, and the One Stop PD Shop. These programs have helped thousands of people to improve their leadership skills. Kurzhals has also sponsored leadership scholarships at both Virginia Tech and Harvard.
"Just as it was in the beginning of this country’s manned space program,” he said, “America’s future in human space exploration must be driven by leaders and innovators who can turn the dreams of space commercialization into reality, today’s students hold the key to that future.”
Class of: 1960, 1962, 1966
Year Inducted into Academy: 2013