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The Bold Trajectory of Robert Lindberg

By Ray Bert '93

First developing X-planes and now leading NASA's new aerospace research institute, Bob Lindberg '74 charts a daring course.

"My very favorite book, when I was perhaps 6 years old, was the Golden Book Encyclopedia," says Robert Lindberg '74. "The last chapter was on the solar system, and I read it over and over again."

Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s, Lindberg was as single-minded--and as prescient--in his passion as a young boy can be. He was fascinated by America's fledgling space program, and still has a copy of a report he did on astronaut Alan Shepard's first flight. That he would eventually contribute to the history of the space program would not have surprised the youngster. "I think I knew," Lindberg admits.

Until recently Lindberg served as deputy general manager of the Advanced Programs Group for space contracting giant Orbital Sciences Corporation. His work at Orbital ranged from in-the-trenches technical development of rockets and satellites, to conceptual design of experimental spacecraft, to business expansion. "They were always very supportive and offered me opportunities to grow and do different things."

Orbital, headquartered in Dulles, Va., was supportive in no small part because Lindberg helped build the company into what it is today. Still in its infancy when he joined in 1987, Orbital had just one product (an upper-stage rocket for the space shuttle), one contract, and fewer than 25 employees. Now an established contractor with NASA as well as a niche Department of Defense contractor, Orbital employs more than 2,000 people and measures its annual revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2002 Orbital won a key missile defense contract worth approximately $900 million over eight years, and in early 2003 was awarded another worth nearly half a billion dollars over 10 years.

Now that Orbital is all grown up, Lindberg has moved on to the newly formed National Institute of Aerospace (NIA). The nonprofit research institute has strong ties to NASA's Langley Research Center--the preeminent aeronautical research laboratories in the world. Lindberg serves as NIA's vice president for research and program development, becoming involved at a crucial point in the organization's beginnings--a role that he feels comfortable in because he has played it so often, in all areas of his life. "It seems like I've always been associated with growth entities," he says.

Hooked on Space

After receiving a physics degree from WPI and then an engineering physics master's degree from the University of Virginia, Lindberg took a job with the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., as a researcher in the Navy's space program. "Once I was working there," he says, "I knew that I'd be in aerospace for the rest of my life."

During his 10 years at NRL, Lindberg earned his doctorate of engineering science in mechanical engineering and also moved up the management chain to become responsible for conceptual design of the Navy's future spacecraft and satellite systems. His next mission: Orbital Sciences Corporation.

In Orbital Lindberg had found a company poised to capitalize on the growing interest in commercial space flight, one where he could continue to indulge his fascination with space. Soon after Lindberg came on board, chief engineer Antonio Elias invented Pegasus, a rocket air-launched from underneath an airplane designed to take small satellites (roughly 600-800 pounds) into low Earth orbit. Lindberg worked on the development team for Pegasus; today it is an industry workhorse that has been launched approximately 30 times since 1990. Elias, now general manager of Orbital's Advanced Programs Group, says "Bob's ability to lead was integral to the company's growth. In the early days we were like a small tribe, and Bob was one of the more inspiring members of the tribe. People liked him."

The rocket established a market for building small satellites. Lindberg developed the company's first--an R&D satellite for the Air Force called APEX--as well as a manufacturing facility. His recollection of the frenetic period--"We were building the satellite as we were building the facility to build it!"--is evidence of what drives him to choose endeavors that aren't yet defined, that seem full of possibility.

In 1995 Orbital tapped Lindberg to lead a high-profile project--both full of possibility and undefined. The X-34 program called for developing an experimental, unmanned hypersonic rocket plane to serve as a technology test bed for a next-generation reusable launch vehicle. Designed to be dropped from an airplane, the X-34 would fly at Mach 8 to the outer limits of the atmosphere before reentering to land horizontally on a runway.

"That," Lindberg says, rising from his chair to retrieve a model of the X-34 from a nearby shelf, "was this baby." He brandishes the model with pride and glee, seeming for just an instant like that 6-year-old boy dreaming of the stars.

The Politics of Science

The X-34 project's raison d'etre was to develop technologies that would enable NASA to operate a reusable launch vehicle much more efficiently than the space shuttle. "Because of the complexity of its systems, a shuttle takes as much as four months to process between flights, with 11,000 to 15,000 people involved. That's very costly," Lindberg says.

"NASA's research in aeronautics, space science, earth observation and planetary exploration will continue, as we also develop a recovery plan for the space shuttle program." --Bob Lindberg '74

By improving critical technologies such as thermal protection on the simpler X-34, he says, they'd hoped to eventually develop a preflight inspection checklist similar to that used for commercial aircraft. This would allow the X-34 to be processed for a repeat flight within two weeks--meaning that it could fly more missions at a lower cost per flight. The problem is a vicious circle: "Those checklists are efficient for commercial aircraft because we have 90 years of aviation experience on which to draw. We don't have that with rocket planes," Lindberg says. "We won't have it until we fly them routinely, and we won't fly them routinely until we can do it cost-effectively, which won't happen until we have a simple checklist."

He smiles at the conundrum, offering no hint of frustration. Lindberg's temperament seems suited to tackling technical puzzles: driven enough to seek out solutions, but practical enough to recognize when a solution may, for the moment at least, be out of reach.

That was the case with the X-34. NASA cancelled the program early in 2001, before the X-34 ever flew. Though Lindberg says it was becoming increasingly clear that reusable launch was not necessarily the panacea it was originally thought to be, there was much that they learned. "There were two failed missions to Mars, and NASA had got beaten up by Congress," he says. "The X-34 was by its nature risky, and therefore didn't fit in an atmosphere where it was politically unacceptable to fail. Science doesn't take place in a political vacuum--a valuable lesson I take to my new job," he adds.

At NIA, Lindberg is responsible for a wide array of research programs. "We are an institute without any laboratories, because we have access to all of the Langley labs," he says. "It's exciting, because there's something like $4 billion worth of investment at Langley, and there are certain things that you can only do there.

"NASA's responsibilities reach well beyond just the space shuttle and human spaceflight," Lindberg says. NIA is collaborating with NASA on research in topics as diverse as the design of new aircraft that mimic biological flight, the development of next-generation technologies for air traffic control, and new satellite sensors to improve weather and climate prediction.

"NASA's research in aeronautics, space science, earth observation and planetary exploration will continue," he says, "as we also develop a recovery plan for the space shuttle program."

With this latest career move, Lindberg is now a full-time manager--a natural progression from his work at Orbital. "While there is the possibility for me to do research, I'm first and foremost an executive," he says. Lindberg also serves as president of the American Astronautical Society, which keeps his hand in space, now that he focuses primarily on non-space matters at NIA. He credits his WPI years with incubating his hybrid of business acumen and technological know-how, the force that has propelled him on his career trajectory.

The Right Start

The young Lindberg had set off for WPI, intent on majoring in physics and becoming an astronomer. He was disabused of the latter notion by "a very wise professor" who explained how few opportunities there were in the field. But it was another wise professor who had perhaps the largest impact on his education: John van Alstyne (known simply as "van A" to generations of WPI students) offered Lindberg, then in his sophomore year, the opportunity to be one of the "guinea pigs" for the WPI Plan, in its early, experimental stage.

"The Plan was radical at the time," Lindberg says. "I was probably the first person in the history of the Physics Department to fail a competency exam," he says with a smile. "I don't wear it as a badge of honor. The professors were still trying to figure out how hard it should be--and I can tell you, the first year it was pretty darn difficult; I took it twice!" He persevered and became one of the original 60 Plan graduates.

The unconventional curriculum helped Lindberg develop communication skills that would serve him well on the business side of engineering work. Preparing his major project and competency exam presentations taught him to speak confidently in front of an audience. For his interactive project he served as the science and technology writer for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "I really took to it," he says. What he discovered, even if it wasn't clear at the time, was a model for situations in which he would thrive.

Lindberg's penchant for casting his lot with fledgling endeavors extends into his personal life. An avid swimmer (he swam on the varsity team for four years at WPI and coached at UVA), he became involved in 1988 with a local swim club in the Washington, D.C., area. From humble beginnings as a one-day-a-week program for 30 or 40 kids, the club now boasts 400 swimmers and more than a dozen coaches, including Lindberg, who is professionally certified by the American Swimming Coaches Association. The club has sent two swimmers to the Olympic Trials and more than a dozen others to competitive NCAA colleges.

Being involved with swiming has a great fringe benefit for Lindberg: time with his kids. Bethany, the oldest, holds the Big-12 Conference record in the 200-meter backstroke and was an All-American; Christian ranks in the top 10 in the country in freestyle at Virginia Tech; and youngest, Sarah, also swims.

In addition to raising their own children, Lindberg and his wife, Nancy, have served as foster parents for the last 12 years. "We've had 20 foster children, working through Catholic Charities," he says. As is befitting a man so drawn to the early stages of things, many of the children have been infants put up for adoption.

"We've had some for as little as a week and others for as long as a year. One little boy we had for 13 months," Lindberg says, his normally resonant voice going quiet. As he speaks you can hear his hope that he's helped give that boy (and others) a good start, so that someday they may find their own favorite chapters in the Golden Book Encyclopedia.

Ray Bert '93 is a free-lance writer in Arlington, Va.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 12:35 EDT
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