Momentum Member Spotlight – October 2012
AIAA Congratulates Maj Gen Robert Dickman
By Duane Hyland and Lawrence Garrett, AIAA Communications
This month, the AIAA Member Spotlight shines on AIAA’s departing Executive Director, Maj Gen Robert S. Dickman, U.S. Air Force (retired) and AIAA Fellow. Simply known as Bob to the staff and our volunteer members, he has served for more than seven years in the Executive Director role. He will step down from the role on the 22nd of October. While we will still see Bob around the office, as he stays on to help Dr. Sandra Magnus, AIAA’s incoming Executive Director, adjust to her new position, he is looking forward to retirement and the time he will have with his family and friends.
Bob assured us that he will stay active within the Institute as a volunteer, so while he will no longer be directly leading the staff, he will still be playing a continuing role in guiding the Institute forward.
“The headlines on my 13th birthday, October 5, 1957, were all about Sputnik – so that’s the era I grew up in. Mercury happened while I was in high school, and Gemini was flying when I graduated from college,” said Bob when he was asked what had inspired him to enter the aerospace profession. He continued: “I expect most people my age that were interested in science and math wished they could be involved in the space program; I was no exception. When I was in high school watching Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper go into space, my dream was someday to be launching rockets at Cape Canaveral – something I thought could never happen.”
Reminiscing about his childhood in New Jersey, Bob highlighted just how new the space program, and the concept of aerospace engineering, was to his family and neighbors, stating that: “As a kid I had thought I wanted to be an engineer. In East Orange, NJ there weren't a lot of engineers but there was a railroad track right behind our house. So when I said I wanted to be an engineer, people assumed I wanted to drive the trains.” The confusion about what the term “engineering” meant led him to start answering the question in a different way, “I started saying that I wanted to be a scientist instead. I enjoyed physics in high school, so that was my projected major when I applied to Union College.”
Due to bad eyesight, which worsened while in college, Bob, enrolled in Union College’s Air Force Reserve Officers Training Course (ROTC), could not become a pilot or even continue on the track to becoming a navigator, even though “in those days ‘everyone’ in ROTC hoped to fly.” His disappointment was short lived, as he discovered the Air Force was looking for people to study Space Physics. This lead him to the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and, as Dickman said, “it was no surprise that I was hooked on ‘space’ from that point on.”
After graduation from his Masters degree program, Bob found that the Air Force’s space program was “wide open.” His first assignment was managing AFOSR’s basic research program in high energy and particle physics. After that he got into satellite communications; then space defense; space situational awareness; satellite operations; launch and then reconnaissance systems – with admin and management jobs sprinkled in.
When asked, “What is the most memorable moment of your storied aerospace career?” Bob found it impossible to answer, and given his long career with the Air Force and then AIAA, who could blame him? He started out by talking about his days commanding the 45th Space Wing, explaining that it is: “the organization that still operates Cape Canaveral, launches with our industry partners all the expendable launch vehicles, and provides range safety for all launches: expendable rockets, Shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center until last year, and missile launches from submarines at sea.” While talking about those days, several memories came to mind, “we had 30 space launches in the 18 months I was there (1993-1995) including ten Shuttles and all were successful.” “I’m sure that Sandy Magnus, our new AIAA Executive Director, would say that riding into space is better than launching something into space, but since going there wasn’t an option, launching rockets was the best thing I could be doing. And, yes, I would have loved to go into space! Still would, for that matter.” Bob also relayed many other “favorite moments” from his career. “I saw Apollo 17, up close in the VAB – and will forever regret that I didn’t find a way to see a big Saturn launch, live.” “Listening along with a couple of billion others as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed at Tranquility Base, and watching as Neil took that first step, and feeling good about being involved in the nation’s space program.” “Tracking the first space shuttle, STS-1, at NORAD from inside Cheyenne Mountain as we watched a whole new era in space travel unfold.” “The stand-up of Air Force Space Command in 1982 and the 2d (now 50th) Space Wing in 1985 were things that had consumed a lot of my time and emotions and have made a big difference in the role of space in military operations. I’ll never forget being Mission Director or Launch Decision Authority for launches of Titan IV, Delta II and Atlas II rockets.” Not surprisingly, Bob pointed out that not all memorable moments are good, and listed “Challenger and Columbia” among his memorable moments as well.
One of Bob’s best memories came at the end of the Shuttle Program, with the flight of STS-135, Space Shuttle Atlantis. As Bob tells it: “Thirty years after STS-1, Barb and I watched, and felt, STS-135 launch. I didn’t make the same mistake I had with the Saturn V. We’d seen many before that, Barb more than me because I had been on console for ten while she watched from outside, but STS-135 was special. On several occasions we were within touching distance of the orbiter and the big solids a day before launch on a tour hosted by one of several astronauts we’ve gotten to know as good friends. What an amazing flying machine that system was, and how great that an STS-135 crew member is our new Executive Director.”
Bob concluded: “Retiring from active duty, in 2000, after 34 years was all about memorable moments. At that kind of ceremony you get to look back over a career. Some jobs were better than others and some days were better than others, but I never had an assignment I didn’t enjoy – and feel blessed to have had the opportunity to do whatever it was. Nothing has changed in the twelve years since then. As one of my Group commanders at the Cape said after his first launch on console: ‘And we get paid for doing this?’”
When asked what he enjoyed most about his 7 year career as AIAA’s Executive Director, Bob replied: “That’s an easy one: the people. I doubt there’s another position in our community where the opportunity to engage with as many of the best and brightest, the honored and the up-and-coming is not only possible but expected. On top of that, I got to work with a staff that truly cares about AIAA and cares about aerospace and the people working in the profession. For someone who loves aerospace and spent most of my life in it, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Looking toward the future of aerospace, and the major advancements that will be made, as well as the obstacles that will have to be overcome to achieve those advancements, Bob replied: “I think it won’t be a widget, it will be an approach. Since the start of the space age the vast majority of the innovation has started with the government. In some areas it has transitioned to the commercial world – satellite communications is the most obvious example from a technology and hardware perspective, and GPS applications from the point of view of user applications. Imagery has started down that path over the past decade, and we are seeing it in launch. When that happens, good things result.” He continued, “The government can take three approaches to the commercial world: stifle it, allow it to proceed or foster it. If there’s a big enough return on investment, it doesn’t matter what government does, other than stifle. If the government is the “anchor tenant” – the purchaser that has to be there for the fledgling industry to develop to the point where there’s a sustainable commercial market, it matters a lot. If we want our space industry to grow, to become a powerhouse in the US economy and internationally, government needs to pick option three – take the risks, ease the regulatory environment, and make the investments and the purchases, to allow commercial space to succeed.” He concluded that change would not be without difficulty, noting: “For some of the people in government space programs, that means letting go of something that they did well, and perhaps that no one else has done. That’s hard.”
When asked what he would tell students, in high school or college, about pursuing an aerospace career Bob responded with three pieces of advice: “First, I need to make the point that I am not an engineer. You don’t need to be an engineer to work in aerospace. Personally, I think that as someone trained in science I brought a way of thinking about things that was different than most of those who were trained as engineers. Not better, not worse, but different. And that difference was ‘value added.’ So, my first piece of advice really is: “Aerospace needs people whose backgrounds are science, or engineering – or law, policy, philosophy, management, finance … the list goes on.”
Bob’s second piece of advice is: “Choose a career in something you are passionate about, something you want to spend your life doing. Then, work to be the best at something in that field, be invaluable to your boss. There was a time as a young officer when I probably knew more about the Air Force UHF satellite communications budget than anyone – I was an inch wide and a mile deep. By the time I left government I had worked in almost every aspect of national security space, and knew a fair amount about NASA – a mile wide and an inch deep. At both ends of that span, I was an important asset to my employer.”
“Lastly, whether you are ‘technical’ or not, learn enough about the ‘technology’ that you can talk to the person on the street about what happens in your part of aerospace or why you want to work in aerospace. Every pilot, whether a history major or Ph.D. in aero, knows what makes an airplane fly and will tell you that she or he loves flying. I’ll bet that the person who tracks the budget for Curiosity could tell us what it’s going to do, and why. Be passionate! Not only will you be a better ‘aerospace professional’ if you can do this, it will be more fun.”
Bob closed the interview by talking about the importance of AIAA to the aerospace profession and to aerospace professionals. He started by talking about his own connection to AIAA: “Being a member of the society that is the advocate and source of information and easiest place to network with peers in your profession is important, regardless of the field. It wasn’t until I had left active duty in the Air Force that my professional “home” became AIAA – because before that it had been the Air Force Association. In retrospect I would have been much better served to have been in both throughout my career, since in reality I was both an Air Force professional and an aerospace professional. I was fortunate that I had been invited to speak at AIAA events fairly often and so had the opportunity to attend conferences and engage with people working in aerospace even before becoming a member.”
He then went on to single out the personal connections one can make by being an AIAA member as the Institute’s greatest benefit to members: “While we hope that things like Aerospace America and the Daily Launch and member pricing on the books, journals, conferences, etc. are worth the annual dues, the real value of AIAA membership comes with participation, and comes over an extended period. It includes the technical contacts that are made within Sections and at conferences that often last a lifetime. Networking at the Section level is enormously valuable, and often provides the opportunity to interact with people much higher up in the corporate world. It includes attending events that cover a broad range of subjects, so you can interact at the very detailed technical level, or at the management and integration level, or at the business level, or with people who are operating things made with what you are inventing or designing or building. It includes the opportunity to publish in peer-reviewed journals; it also includes the chance to engage with peers in a much more informal give-and-take through Technical Committees and as the web site evolves, through communities of practice and other fora. It also includes the opportunity for leadership experience and exposure outside the structure of your company – experience that any employer will find valuable as you more up the chain.”
He ended the discussion by pointing out that while he was definitely biased on the subject, “being a member of a professional society is valuable and AIAA is the premier technical society for anyone working in aerospace. Of course it’s important!” AIAA thanks Bob Dickman for his leadership of AIAA during a time of momentous change throughout the aerospace industry. We also congratulate him on his long and storied career in the service of our nation, and for his selection as the AIAA Member Spotlight for October, 2012. All of us at AIAA wish him the best of times in retirement, and we look forward to seeing him at conferences and events in the future.