Aeronautical Engineering, Class of 1958, BS
Aerospace Engineering, Class of 1961, MS; Class of 1964, Ph.D.
Some four decades after William Grossmann received his doctorate in aerospace engineering (AE) from Virginia Tech, he continues to practice on the cutting edge of research, currently splitting his time between developing technology towers of excellence for the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) in Hampton, Virginia, and creating worldwide business opportunities for the global Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) from his home in Berlin, Germany.
His varied career is full of firsts, garnered at some of the world’s most prestigious scientific organizations. As examples, he formed the computer science center at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, was part of a group at the Max Planck Institut für Plasma Physik that discovered a new form of fusion plasma heating, and developed an initiative for upgrading the information technology (IT) infrastructure at Asea Brown Boveri Germany (ABB) Ltd., an international leader in power and automation technologies.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Grossmann learned excellence early in his life. As a Boy Scout, he rose to the rank of Eagle Scout and became a member of the selective Order of the Arrow. In 1954 he was the highest-ranking scout in Virginia, allowing him to represent the group at the opening of the Virginia General Assembly during the turbulent time of school integration.
He also excelled at swimming, earning an athletic scholarship to attend Virginia Tech. He eventually became co-captain of its swim team, and he was voted outstanding swimmer in the Southern Conference in 1956, 1957, and 1958. When he returned several years later for graduate studies, the athletic director at the time, Frank Moseley, asked him to become the interim coach. Many years later, in 1991, he would become the first swimmer inducted into Virginia Tech’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I chose Virginia Tech because it was the best educational bargain in the country, it had the Corps of Cadets, and I could swim competitively.” After he received his AE bachelor’s degree in 1958, he went to work for NASA Langley as an aerospace technologist, but took leave in 1960 to start his master’s degree.
“When I arrived back on campus, I ran into Bob Truitt, head of the AE department who immediately offered me a Space Act Fellowship,” he remembers. It was indeed a red-letter day as that was also when he ran into Moseley who explained his old swimming coach was taking a sabbatical, and offered him the position on the spot.
Within four years he secured both his master’s and doctorate, receiving the Virginia Tech Sigma Xi Award and NASA’s Dissertation Award. The latter provided him with a one-year sabbatical with pay, and he found himself gravitating to New York City’s Greenwich Village and a post doc position with New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. The Courant Institute, described by Grossmann was home to “the cream of the mathematicians who emigrated from Germany before WWII and landed in Greenwich Village.
“I got so turned on by the work in the mathematical physics area, studying the stability of controlled thermonuclear fusion plasmas, that I left NASA permanently and stayed in New York for half of my salary,” he willingly admits. At the end of his post doc, he accepted a position of assistant professor at City University’s College of Staten Island and was asked to form its computational center. “It was the very beginning of the large-scale computing era and only a handful of Cray 6600 supercomputers had been sold. IBM became a partner with us, and I needed to find the appropriate configuration that allowed growth,” Grossmann says.
Earlier he was awarded a NATO Fellowship in 1965 to spend the summer in Holland, and he began a long-term relationship with scientists at the Max Plank Institut in Munich, Germany. He interrupted his tenure track position at City University to become a senior scientist at the European Institute in 1969. For the next five years his challenges led him to co-discovering and developing a revolutionary new concept for radio frequency wave heating of thermonuclear plasmas.
He returned to New York in 1974, as Research Professor and Associate Director of Courant Institute’s Magneto-Fluid Dynamics Division to expand its research activities in fusion plasma physics. This expansion allowed the institute to become more involved with national laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos where major fusion experiments were underway. As a research professor of plasma sciences, he interacted with a number of government study panels and other national and international mathematical and physics organizations.
On one particular occasion, he was asked to consult for Science Applications International Corporation, and he met the corporation’s founder Robert Beyster. “He is a visionary entrepreneurial individual, and I started consulting for SAIC, spending about three months a year in San Diego,” Grossmann says. Also during this time Grossmann was elected to the position of Director of the Summer College on Plasma Physics at the Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, a position he held from 1983 until 1987.
As Grossmann approached the often reflective age of 50 in 1987, he promised himself he would do something different. So, after eight years of Beyster’s cajoling him to join SAIC full time, he accepted, provided he could remain in his beloved New York City. He became vice president and chief scientist for SAIC’s applied physics operation in McLean, Virginia, yet he retained a foothold in New York as an adjunct professor of applied science at NYU until 1990.
“As my involvement with SAIC matured, I saw a host of challenges and rewards. I decided to move with my wife Judith to Washington, D.C. in 1990,” he reveals. The move allowed him to become the manager of a number of large Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded SAIC projects involving the use of concurrent engineering and simulation based design approaches to streamlining DoD systems acquisition processes.
Headhunters followed his career and they successfully persuaded him in 1995 to take a leave of absence from SAIC and join ABB, Ltd., as a program manager in its Heidelberg, Germany, Corporate Research Center. He was responsible for engineering systems integration.
After studying the company’s operations in Germany, Grossmann essentially created his next position. “I made the case to ABB’s Board of Directors that the 67 ABB offices in Germany with some 30,000 employees needed to share engineering data and information over a mutual network. I showed them what the return on investment would be,” he says. His presentation secured him the position of Chief Information Officer of ABB Germany in 1998. In 2000, he became the ABB Kraftwerke AG’s Chief Knowledge Officer and Director of IT. When ABB Kraftwerke was absorbed in a joint venture between ABB and ALSTOM, it formed ABB ALSTOM Power, and Grossmann was named its director of business IT alignment in December of 2000 with an office in Paris.
A horrendous skydiving accident sidelined Grossmann for about a year when he was 62. During his recuperation time, SAIC asked him to end his leave and rejoin as a member of the energy solutions sector. He did so in March of 2002 as a vice president of technology, responsible for developing business opportunities in energy with emphasis on power generation throughout Western Europe and the Middle East. Subsequently he became vice president of technology and chief scientist for SAIC Consulting in London, a position that outlasted the former by more than two years.
Since June of 2005, Grossman has served as the director of business development for SAIC Services, Inc., responsible for business development in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. And his career also found its way back to Virginia Tech as he and his wife established the Charlie L. Yates scholarship for leaders in aerospace and ocean engineering (AOE) in 2006. They became members of Ut Prosim in October, 2007. Grossmann is currently an adjunct professor in Tech’s AOE department.
Moreover, following one of his class of 1958 football alumni reunion weekends, Robert Tolson, an academy member and North Carolina State University’s Distinguished Langley Professor at the National Institute of Aerospace, suggested Grossmann consider working with the NASA Langley spin-off organization. Grossmann spent several months in 2006 and 2007 helping to develop technology business opportunities for NIA in systems engineering, advanced materials, and unmanned autonomous vehicles.
Grossmann continues to work with SAIC and NIA, dividing his time between Berlin and Hampton, Virginia. Obviously, at 71, Grossmann is still seeking challenges.
Grossmann has two children from a previous marriage, Alexander and Simone.
Class of: 1958, 1961, 1964
Year Inducted into Academy: 2008