On Education: Letter to Robert J Stevens, CEO, Lockheed Martin

Dear Mr Stevens,

I had the great good fortune to see the IMAX movie “Roving Mars” recently, the movie about the recent NASA/JPL/Cornell mission to Mars, featuring Stephen Squyres and others from Cornell.

I noted at the start that it was “Sponsored as a Public Service by Lockheed Martin.”
The movie was not only exceptional, but the combination of Lockheed/NASA/JPL brought back memories, so much so that I am writing you this note.

“Roving Mars” is one of the best movies I have ever seen in terms of demonstrating the joy of science, the collaborative nature of science, and the thrills of a voyage of discovery. It brought back memories of a similar series that I saw as a child growing up in the 50’s. That series was sponsored by AT&T and consisted of several hour-long movies; I’m sure it played a role in my decision to become a scientist.

The people in “Roving Mars” never leave Earth. They build the Rovers, send them on their way, guide them after their arrival.

But we all know that in days past we have sent people into space.

Some of them never came back.

It was just over 20 years ago, on 25 January 1986, that the Space Shuttle “Challenger”, STS-51-L, broke up in flight, resulting in the loss of the whole crew. This event was widely noted in the press and other media recently.

If was just over three years ago, on 1 Feb 2003, that the Space Shuttle “Columbia”, STS-107, also broke up in flight with the loss of the clue.

I remember — as I am sure do you — both of those disasters.

But I have much stronger memories of another such disaster. Those memories go back over 40 years, to when I was 20 years old.

Though I was never part of JPL, I did go to Caltech, graduating in ’66 with a BS in math. Though I never made it up to the foothills to see JPL I did know about it. Some of my classmates worked there during their undergraduate days; others went to work there after graduation.

I was fortunate enough — probably because I was then a Caltech student majoring in physics — to receive a NASA scholarship for a summer program in 1965. It involved three weeks of study in New York City at the Columbia/NASA Goddard Institute (which as it happens was in the same building now known to millions as “Jerry Seinfeld’s restaurant”), followed by two weeks visiting major NASA facilities. The course was taught by Robert Jastrow, a well-known astrophysicist.

The three weeks in NYC were fun. What I most remember is that one student was head and shoulders above all the rest. His name was Barry Simon, and the course evolved into a discussion between Jastrow and Simon. I have never spoken to Barry since, but I have come across his name from time to time over the years . He spent some time at the Institute for Advanced Study, is now the IBM Professor of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Caltech.

The “tour” began in early August ’65 in Huntsville. We may even have met Werner Von Braun — I don’t remember.

But I do know we met a real honest-to-goodness astronaut when we went to Houston, because I remember the occasion well — and those few minutes we spent with him — to this day. He had actually been in space.

Now we all know the look on a proud dad’s face when he pulls out his wallet and shows some pictures of one of his children. This man had that same look, but he was showing us pictures not of his family, but of himself, walking in space. He was beaming!

His name was Ed White. He had taken that walk in space only a few weeks earlier during the Gemini 4 mission. It was the first spacewalk by an American.

He died 26 January 1967 in the Apollo spacecraft flash fire during a launch pad test at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Now I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation and risk-taking lately, because I believe it is a difficult task indeed to build a culture where risk-taking is not only desired but expected.

But Ed White’s death reminds us there are indeed people willing to risk it all: to place their fate — and even their life — in the hands of their colleagues.

Your movie celebrates one of NASA’s recent achievements, and in doing so celebrates Lt. Col. White’s memory.

And for that I thank you.

One of the great parts of the movie is as a demonstration of innovation. I had some concept of the “air bags”, but hadn’t really appreciated the need for them, and the elegance of their design. I was also struck by the use of six wheels — so obvious once seen, but something I had never heard reported or commented on.

And thinking of that reminded me that Lockheed has a proud history of innovation.

Many technical folks have heard the phrase “skunkworks”, but I expect only a minority know that the phrase is based on Lockheed’s legendary team first led by Kelly Johnson. This was the team that produced the U2 and the Lockheed SR-71 airplane, two of the most innovative planes in the history of aviation. There is a surviving SR-71 hull on the deck of the USS Intrepid near 47th street in NYC; I look for it every time I drive by, as it is a thing of exceptional beauty, the kind of beauty that results where function is all, and so dictates appearance. I saw this kind of beauty in a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art, where I chanced across a 1946 military helicoper. It was exquisite: not an extra bolt — every screw there to serve a purpose — there was no adornment.

As it happens my nephew, a former police officer and current commercial pilot for Delta, is also a fan of military history. During a recent visit to his home I came across his copy of Ben Rich’s book, “Skunk Works”.

And what absolutely blew me away is something that I know you and your employees know, but that I had never heard about. Namely, that “stealth technology,” the key part of our nation’s defense technology, all came about because one person — a Lockheed employee — read a paper written by a Russian scientist, had an idea, took it his management, and they took a risk, and .. the US government took a risk … and the rest is history.

And for that I thank you, too.

But there is yet another reason I write. That is for your contribution to educating our children.

My youngest daughter is a senior at Yale, where she is a member of the Yale Symphony Orchestra (YSO). YSO celebrated their 40th anniversary on this Feb 4th, and my wife and I were fortunate to be there. They performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the Yale Glee Club as the chorus.

This was in New Haven, Connecticut.

The following Friday I participated in a panel of the “IT Academy” in Southbury, Connecticut. The IT Academy is a joint effort of the state government and IBM to help encourage students to go into science and technology. Though Connecticut is a wealthy state the students present were a cross-section.

And I walked away from that meeting concerned — very concerned — about what I had observed.

That’s because in the span of a week I had seen the very best American education has to offer and a sample much closer to the average.

I recall being a proud parent in the balcony of Woolsey Hall, a few years ago on a bright September morning in New Haven, looking down on the Yale class of ’06, realizing I was looking at a number of future CEO’s, Senators, teachers, attorneys, physicians, scientists, perhaps even a President. They were there — I just didn’t know who they were, which seat held the CEO, which the Lasker award winner.

As I left Southbury that Friday I realized I had seen another class, in the same state, less than sixty miles from the first, but a class with prospects not as bright, a class less likely to produce the scientists and engineers that our country so desperately needs.

I was concerned, so concerned that I thought of writing President Bush . Then I realized that my letter was not needed, because my CEO — IBM’s Sam Palmisano — had already seen the problem, had written a couple of letters: one to President Bush commiting IBM to help to improve the situation; another to IBM’s employees asking them to honor this commitment.

Now the movie had lots of sound effects — big bangs, great sounds when the air bags deployed … all that.

But he best sound I heard was the laughter, the excitement, the ooh’s and aah’s from nearby young students.

And that is really why I am writing to thank you and your company. I hope some of my fellow citizens do too.

Because if just one of those young students — or another of the thousands and thousands of students who will see that movie because Lockheed sponsored it — decides to go into science or engineering, and then goes on to become the next Ed White or the next Stephen Squyres, then every penny you have spent on this movie will have been justified.

Based on my first day at the IT academy, further inspired by “Roving Mars”, and to honor the memory of Ed White, I commit to spending more days at the IT academy — to participate in some educational efforts with area high schools, to meet some science and math teachers, get their ideas on how I can help, and pitch in.

I’m going to see if I can find some current or former Lockheed employees in the area who would be interested in working with me. I know they are there; I just haven’t found them yet.

Though we need more Ed’s and Stephen’s as soon as we can, I must admit I would be willing to wait even longer to get them.

Even though I would by then be long gone, it would somehow be more fitting if the movie inspired someone to become a high school teacher, a teacher who inspired one of their students to go into science or engineering, setting them on a path that could lead to West Point, to Caltech, or — best of all — back to space.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 17, 2006 at 16:32 | Permalink | Reply

    nice blog!

    jess

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] attended a summer program sponsored by NASA in 1965. Though the engineers and astronauts were almost all males. I would consider it a personal favor if […]

  2. […] third letter appeared as the very first post in this blog, Letter to Robert J Stevens, CEO, Lockheed Martin. Although my first two CEO letters had been written to report a problem, I believed that fairness […]

  3. […] began my blog just over three years ago. If you read my first post, Letter to Robert J Stevens, CEO, Lockheed Martin, you will learn that my first post was both a letter to a CEO and an indication of my passion for […]

  4. […] To thank the CEO for a job well done; for example, see my first post in this blog, Letter to Robert J Stevens, CEO, Lockheed Martin; […]

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