Albert “Bud” Wheelon, one of the nation’s central figures in the development of the first spy satellite and later the commercial communications satellite industry, has died. He was 84.
Wheelon, who became one of California’s most important technological innovators in aerospace, leaving behind a multbillion-dollar enterprise and making key contributions to national security, died Friday at his home in Montecito, Calif.
Under Wheelon’s guidance as the first science and technology director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. invented the photo reconnaissance satellite during the early 1960s.
The spacecraft, bearing the code name Corona, gave U.S. military planners their first concrete assessment of the capabilities of the Soviet Union during the tensest days of the nuclear arms race, when some feared that the communists had opened a wide superiority over the U.S. in nuclear warheads.
The grainy black-and-white images sent by Corona, dropped into the atmosphere in film canisters that were captured in midflight by aircraft, helped to contain the arms race from ever greater extremes, Wheelon said decades later when the program was declassified.
“Bud was one of the giants of aerospace,” said Steven Dorfman, a business associate at Hughes and later a friend of Wheelon’s. “He was an exceptional scientist and an extraordinary judge of people, a great organizer.”
After serving at the CIA for four years, Wheelon moved back to Los Angeles, where he grew up, and in 1967 took over the nascent satellite business of Hughes Aircraft. Over the next two decades, Hughes would become the dominant manufacturer of communications satellites and one of the major private employers in California. At its peak, more than half of the satellites in orbit were built by Hughes at its sprawling factory in El Segundo, which today is owned by Boeing and employs about 5,000 people.
Wheelon could be a tough boss and was known to not tolerate fools.
“He turned off a lot of timid people, who would leave his office trembling,” said Robert Roney, who served as Wheelon’s deputy at the satellite business for 15 years. “My job was to calm down nerves. It was a full-time job. But Bud was a great leader and eventually became greatly admired.”
It was Wheelon who built Hughes’ business in spy satellites, which eventually accounted for half of its sales. And Wheelon became convinced that building commercial satellites alone would be a low-profit business, as other companies attempted to compete. Hughes became a major provider of satellite communications services, which became the biggest profit center of the company. All the major television networks relied on Hughes to transmit their signals across the nation.
But for all of his success in business and technology, Wheelon was ousted from Hughes Aircraft in 1988 after it was purchased by General Motors.
By then, Wheelon had become chairman of the entire company. He began butting heads with GM when he launched an internal investigation into possible foreign bribes on an air defense contact for Egypt. GM officials contended that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and wanted Wheelon to drop the matter because it could damage the automaker’s other business in Egypt.
Wheelon refused to give up the internal probe. The matter grew more tangled when the Justice Department began investigating allegations that Wheelon himself was involved in making bribes in South America.
But after a five-year investigation, the Justice Department dropped the matter without bringing any charges.
Wheelon felt he had been wronged by GM, he told The Times in a series of interviews. As the years went by, he regained his reputation and received awards from the CIA, NASA and professional organizations.
Wheelon was born Jan. 18, 1929, in Moline, Ill. His father, Albert, was an aerospace engineer who brought the family to Los Angeles in a Model T in 1936 so that he could work at Douglas Aircraft Co. Eventually, Wheelon’s father helped to pioneer heat shields for early U.S. spacecraft at a time when his son was beginning to make his mark in space, said Marcia Wheelon, a younger sister.
Wheelon earned a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and never abandoned his love of physics. His field of specialty was electromagnetic scintillation, which involves the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the atmosphere.
After leaving Hughes, he published two major research books on physics, making him among the very few business executives who would return to their technical roots after retirement.
“We would be on the corporate jet flying to a meeting, and he would be working out integral equations for sport,” Dorfman recalled.
Wheelon is survived by his second wife, Cicely; a daughter, Cynthia Wheelon; a grandson, Erik Wheelon; and a sister, Marcia. His first wife, Nancy, died in 1980 and another daughter, Elizabeth, died in 2006.