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10/04/2013 13:28:14

Albert D. "Bud" Wheelon, 1929 – 2013

Albert D. "Bud" Wheelon, a life member of the Board of Trustees of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), passed away at his home in Montecito, California, on September 27. He was 84 years old.

Born on January 18, 1929, in Moline, Illinois, Wheelon moved to Los Angeles in 1936 when his father, an aerospace engineer named Orville Albert Wheelon, got a job at the Douglas Aircraft Company. Wheelon inherited his father's technological bent, earning a bachelor's degree in engineering from Stanford University in 1949 and a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952. After a brief stint of his own at Douglas Aircraft, he joined the Ramo-Wooldridge Company in 1953. There, he helped develop America's first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas, and was an important contributor to the company's work for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Wheelon began working at the CIA in 1962, serving as its first deputy director for science and technology. He was promoted to director the following year, a post he held until 1966. During his tenure, Wheelon was responsible for the agency's high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance operations—including flights during the Cuban Missile Crisis—and for the development of the U-2's successors, the A-12 Oxcart and the SR-71 Blackbird. He also led the development of the first spy satellites, code-named "Corona" but better known as the "Keyhole" series, which took high-resolution photographs on specially made 70-millimeter film that was parachuted back to Earth to be processed.

In 1966, Wheelon joined the Hughes Aircraft Company as vice president of engineering for the firm's nascent satellite division. He eventually retired in 1988 as Hughes' chairman and CEO. He then returned to MIT, and to physics research, as a visiting professor.

Wheelon's publications included dozens of papers on applied physics, missile guidance, radio-wave propagation, and turbulence, as well as two books on applied physics. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He also served on a variety of government commissions, including the Defense Science Board, the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was a trustee of the RAND Corporation for almost a decade.

Wheelon was named a Caltech trustee in 1987 and became a life member of the board in 2001. He was actively engaged in board activities and served on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Committee and the Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy and Geological and Planetary Sciences Visiting Committees.

"I first got to know Bud almost two decades ago when I became chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and he was a member of our visiting committee," recalls Edward Stolper, Caltech's William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology, provost, and interim president. "He met with me and the division faculty whenever he was on campus and provided thoughtful, balanced, and insightful advice based on his wide experience in science, government, and industry. He cared deeply about Caltech and served with distinction as a trustee; he was in my opinion a brilliant man of extraordinary integrity and high standards. All of us who knew him will miss him greatly."

"Bud Wheelon was one of the titans in the aerospace industry and played a major role in JPL's mission of planetary exploration through his work on the JPL Committee," adds JPL director Charles Elachi (PhD '71), who is also a professor of electrical engineering and planetary science.

Wheelon is survived by his second wife, Cicely, daughter, Cynthia, and a grandson. He was predeceased by his first wife, Nancy, and daughter, Elizabeth. 

Written by Douglas Smith