Robert A. Meese

For his outstanding accomplishments in the development of propulsion systems and other technologies related to communications satellites, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Robert A. Meese.

Business Unit Leader, Spacecraft Integration and Structure
Hughes Space and Communications Company
MSME '69, PhD '72


On Purdue

I was interested in engineering as soon as I was old enough to understand what an airplane was. In grade school, I built every model airplane I could get my hands on. I took lessons for a private pilot's license when I was 14, even though you had to be 17 to get the license. From very early on, I was focused on aeronautical engineering.

My first introduction to Purdue's Jet Propulsion Center impressed me. JPC director Dr. Bruce Reece greeted me and explained that before I started taking classes I was to learn the practical aspects of doing research. My first assignment was to learn to run all the machines in the machine shop, to learn to drive the forklift, weld metals, run the photography darkroom, and wire up electronic data transducers. For three months I learned what it was to get down and dirty and make things. Once I learned that, they would let me begin my academic career and start gathering ideas for my thesis work. It was very clear from day one that Purdue was going to give me a hands-on, practical education.

The professors were very open with the graduate students; they didn't stay aloof. They cared a lot about us and our education. I remember the moon landing in 1969. My major professor, Dr. Skifstad, invited students to his house in West Lafayette, and we all sat on the floor to watch the astronauts get out of the lunar lander. That's one of the best memories I have of the Jet Propulsion Center-it was a delightful time of exciting research projects, and all the students and professors interacted very well. There was a great team spirit.

 

On his career and accomplishments

When I entered graduate school in 1967, the space program was becoming a predominant force. Projects Gemini and Apollo were in motion, so I shifted my focus from aeronautical engineering to rocket propulsion with a vision of coming out of Purdue and getting involved with the space program. I thought I would go into large rocket boosters and be the next Wernher von Braun. It was a grandiose vision, but why set a low goal?

I graduated in 1972, which was a bad year for the aerospace industry. There was a severe downturn-Apollo shut down, there were defense cutbacks after Vietnam, and very few jobs were available. I applied to 56 different companies, and within two weeks I received "No thanks" letters from every one, including Hughes. But as luck would have it, three weeks later Hughes called back. In their fledgling space satellite area they had an opening and wondered whether I was interested. Was I? Absolutely.

 

In my career I've learned that engineers must be able to work with other people and contribute to a team. Today's industry is more and more concerned with how well the collective body of workers generates products, thoughts, and ideas. Individualism has its place and is valuable, but the majority must take an individual thought or idea and convert it into products that meet society's needs. I spend half my time and effort as a manager in trying to get people to understand what working together means and the power it yields. The collective output is what's important, not how well one employee outshines another.

Over the years my most memorable accomplishments have certainly included being selected to lead the Spacecraft Integration and Structure Business Unit and seeing the first major spacecraft hardware for which I had primary responsibility-Solar Maximum Mission Solar Arrays-successfully deployed and operational in orbit. More important, from a personal perspective, I've helped my wife, Kitty, raise a terrific daughter, Kelly, who is now 20 years old and in college studying to be a sign-language interpreter. I've also helped coach an American Youth Soccer Organization girls' soccer team to two regional and one area championship, and I've helped Torrance [California] High School obtain a state grant to help it restructure its teaching methods. Family, friends, civic service, and career each offer their own special memories, and I would encourage anyone to make the most of each opportunity.

 

On higher education

Some schools get so involved with research and grants and creating intellectual property that they forget that the reason they exist in the first place is to create knowledgeable students, who are the lifeblood of the future. In industry we have to focus on basic questions. What is our core competency or core product? Who is our customer? How can we do what we do better? I would challenge our educational system to ask the same questions of itself. My thought is that the product is knowledge and the customer is the student. What are you doing to create a better and better product to delight and satisfy the customer?

 

1992:
Business unit leader, Hughes Spacecraft Integration and Structure. Responsible for spacecraft mech anical integration, propulsion systems, power sources, thermal control hardware, spacecraft primary stru cture, launch vehicle interface hardware, ground support equipment, and pyrotechnic devices.
1987:
Manager, Government Spacecraft Product Line; assistant manager, Space Vehicles Division of the Spa ce and Communications Group (SCG); and SCG representative for engineering and manufacturing in the Hughe s Corporate Strategic Planning Initiative.
1986:
Assistant manager, Space Vehicles Laboratory.
1983:
Associate manager, Power Systems Department; assistant manager, Power Systems Laboratory.
1981:
Task manager, Intelsat-6. Responsible for domestic and international contracts.
1980:
Associate manager, Ion Auxiliary Propulsion Systems Program.
1978:
Head, Spacecraft Solar Panel Section.
1976-78:
Managed technical programs involving solar panels-the K-7 Advanced Silicon Solar Cell, the High -Efficiency Gas Solar Cell, and the Solar Maximum Mission Solar Panel.
1972:
Design engineer, Hughes Space and Communications Company. Developed unique propulsion system confi gurations used aboard current satellite fleets and on the first probe to Venus. Spearheaded development of the first fully integrated perigee/apogee propulsion system for geosynchronous orbit spacecraft (now a standard design approach).

BSAE '67, University of Oklahoma; MSME '69, PhD' 72, Purdue.