Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

Bud Weeelon (left) speaks with CISAC's Sig Hecker after the 2007 Drell Lecture by Thom Shanker.
Photo credit: Rod Searcey

October 4, 2013 - CISAC In the News

Bud Wheelon, a reconnaissance pioneer and friend to CISAC, dies

By Beth Duff-Brown

Albert “Bud” Wheelon, a theoretical physicist who was the CIA’s first science and technology director and established CISAC’s Drell Lecture, has died. He was 84. 

Wheelon, who was also a pioneer of the California aerospace industry, died in Santa Barbara last week after a battle with cancer, said his wife, Cicely Wheelon.

The couple endowed the Drell Lecture in 1994; they were close friends with many of CISAC’s core scholars, including Sidney Drell, Siegfried Hecker, Michael May and former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry.

Wheelon was an expert on electromagnetic scintillation, which is the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the atmosphere.

“He was a prince,” said Drell, who met Wheelon at MIT in the 1950s when he was teaching and Wheelon was working on his PhD. “He was a man of enormous grace and good manners; he was an excellent scientist but he was also a gentleman.”

Wheelon was born in Moline, Ill., on Jan. 19, 1929. His father was an aerospace engineer who moved his family to California in 1936, introducing the younger Wheelon to aircraft and engineering. During World War II, the teen worked at Douglas Aircraft in Los Angeles testing the seams and rivets on airplane fuel tanks.

He enrolled at Stanford when he was only 16, graduating with an engineering degree in 1949. He would go on to get his PhD in theoretical physics from MIT.

Wheelon was only 34 when he was named the CIA’s first science and technology director and charged with revolutionizing the nation’s aerial surveillance systems. He oversaw the development of the reconnaissance “Blackbird” aircraft and in the early 1960s helped develop the country’s first reconnaissance satellite program, code-named Corona, with the mission of spying on the former Soviet Union and China.

“His contributions to national defense and commercial satellite communications have been monumental.'' - Hecker

Through the Corona program, Wheelon was able to present the Kennedy administration with aerial photographs and other intelligence during the Cuban missile crisis.

The $850 million Corona program was top secret until 1992, when President Bill Clinton ordered its photos declassified. Wheelon said the grainy black-and-white images sent by the Corona satellites were dropped into the atmosphere in film canisters that were captured in midflight by aircraft. He believed the photos helped to contain the arms race.

According to Philip Taubman’s book, “Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage,” by the time the Corona program ended in 1972 after 145 launches, it had covered more than 520 million square miles of territory. By mid-1964, the satellites had photographed all 25 ICBM complexes in the Soviet Union and kept Washington informed about Soviet military forces and weapons.

“The national reconnaissance systems which the United States now has, which are truly jewels in our crown, all stem, in my judgment, from the creative work that Bud Wheelon did in the ‘60s,” Perry, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at CISAC, is quoted as saying in Taubman’s book.

While at the CIA, Wheelon summoned Drell to Washington on a secret mission. Drell was taken to CIA headquarters and asked to help work on problem the Corona satellites were having with electrical discharge that was streaking the film.

“I was in Washington for four months working on that problem and that solidified my friendship with Bud for the rest of my life,” said Drell, CISAC’s co-founder and professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

After serving at the CIA for four years, Wheelon moved back to Los Angeles and in 1967 took over the satellite business of Hughes Aircraft. Over the next two decades, he helped build Hughes into a dominant player in the commercial satellite business and became company chairman. He would go on to help with the investigation in the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

“Dr. Wheelon is a true engineering superhero,” CISAC senior fellow Hecker said in his nominating letter for the National Academy of Engineering’s Simon Ramo Founders Award, which Wheelon will be awarded posthumously later this month.

“His contributions to national defense and commercial satellite communications have been monumental,” said Hecker, a professor in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. “The Founders Award would be an ideal way that the NAE and the country can recognize his contributions to a safer and more prosperous world.”

Wheelon received numerous awards from the CIA, NASA and was a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He wrote two books on physics.

In 1994, Wheelon and his wife made a gift to create an endowed lectureship at what was then called the Center for International Arms Control and Security at Stanford University. It lectureship would later be named in honor of Drell.

“We had so many friends there at CISAC and it was the international security aspect of CISAC that drew us to the endowment,” said Cicely Wheelon, who graduated from Stanford with a bachelor's in history in 1952. “He thought of CISAC like family.”

The endowed lectureship makes it possible for Stanford scholars and students to listen to and question major figures in the world of international affairs and security. Some speakers have included former Secretary of State George Shutlz; the late astronaut Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space; Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”; and Rose Gottemoeller, acting under secretary of state for arms control and international security.

Vint Cerf – widely known as the father of the Internet – will address the next Drell Lecture on Jan. 22, 2014, about security in a transnational environment.

Wheelon is survived by his wife, Cicely; a daughter, Cynthia Wheelon; a grandson, Erik Wheelon; and his sister, Marcia, who will accept the NAE award on his behalf. His first wife, Nancy Hermanson, died in 1980. Their daughter, Elizabeth, died in 2006.

Topics: International Security and Defense | Science and Technology | United States