Scholarship aims to grow top talent for aerospace industry

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
As deputy undersecretary for the Air Force Space Program in the Pentagon, Gary Payton (MSAE ’72) oversees the military’s space launch program and its satellite and aerospace engineering. He’s got a heady responsibility and a lot on his mind, including where the next generation of Gary Paytons will come from.

Gary and Sue PaytonAs a member of the Sputnik generation, Payton saw the effect that the Russian space program had on the world. He was a child in Rock Island, Ill., at the time, and describes himself as an average little boy who liked airplanes and fire trucks.

“It was like the entire U.S. culture shuddered when Sputnik launched,” he recalls. “Even in the public school system in the heartland of America, where John Deere tractors are in everyone’s mind more than satellites, the school system did an overnight turnaround to put more emphasis on mathematics and science education. I got wrapped up in all that. I took the philosophy that airplanes are great, but jets go higher and faster, and rockets go even higher and faster than jets.” In elementary school, when John Glenn launched, he recalls being more impressed with the Atlas vehicle than the capsule.

Payton followed his love of jets and rockets to the Air Force Academy, where he learned to fly and nurtured a fascination with rockets and missiles by earning a degree in astronautical engineering in 1971. He furthered his studies with a master’s degree at Purdue.

Payton started his Air Force flying in Air Training command T-37s and 38s. From 1976 to 1980, he worked at Cape Canaveral, launching satellites. In 1980, flight and space connected for him once again when he was selected for the USAF Manned Space Flight Engineer Program. In January 1985, he served as a payload specialist on the space shuttle Discovery, becoming the first Department of Defense astronaut. Since retiring from the Air Force in 1995, Payton has held a variety of positions related to space: NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space launch technology (1995-2000), senior vice president for Engineering and Operations, ORBIMAGE (2000-2002); and deputy for advanced systems, Missile Defense Agency (2002-2005). He has held his current post at the Pentagon since 2005.

Payton speaks about the different generations that make up the nation’s aero and astro workforce. His “Sputnik generation” is nearing the age of retirement. It is followed by a sector of workers who emerged in the late 1980s during the military build-up of the Reagan administration. And then there are the newcomers.

“I learned how to do engineering on a slide rule and French curves. We’ve gone far beyond that now,” he says. “At the Air Force Academy, my senior-year design project was to design a better version of a rocket engine. Now, cadets are building FalconSat satellites that they then fly in orbit. At Purdue, you have the high-speed wind tunnel. Each brand new graduate is far more capable than his or her predecessor.”

Payton and his wife, Sue, are doing their part to help ensure the continued growth of the aerospace industry. They have endowed a merit-based scholarship at Purdue for out-of-state undergraduates studying aeronautics and astronautics.

“Purdue has such a worldwide reputation in engineering and such an attractive curriculum that my wife and I wanted to make it easier for top-talent, out-of-state kids to stay at Purdue,” he says. “Throughout the entire aerospace industry, whether in government or industry, there’s a real concern about the workforce. This scholarship is part of encouraging people to get into the aero and astro side of engineering so that we can build that work-force.”