Bob Meyer, program manager of NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, highlights some of the technical features of the German-built infrared telescope mounted inside the SOFIA 747SP. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida)
Passion Led Meyer to Long Career
When Robert R. "Bob" Meyer Jr. talks to students about careers, he tells them to follow their passions, match those with the skills they have and look for opportunities. In addition, he tells them that their attitude determines their altitude, or how far they will get along their career path.
That's sage advice that Meyer has lived by. It has served him well, as he retired from Dryden on Feb. 3, just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his arrival at the center as a cooperative education student.
Meyer retired as manager of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, program, but that only reveals a small sample of a career that has included a number of groundbreaking projects and administrative positions at Dryden.
As manager of the SOFIA program, to which he was appointed in 2006, he was responsible for overall development and preparation for operational service of the observatory, which features a German-built 2.5-meter, or 98-inch, infrared telescope mounted in a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. To succeed, he had to navigate the program through a gauntlet of costs, politics, delays and technical challenges at the start.
As acting deputy center director, Meyer was looking at the SOFIA as a potential fit for Dryden's capabilities. It also was an opportunity to diversify the center's portfolio of work. At the time, aeronautics, which was projected to decrease, accounted for about 70 percent of Dryden's work.
The SOFIA program was in trouble and had lost the confidence of NASA Headquarters, the science community, the German partners and others, he said. There was doubt that the flying observatory would ever capture the first image using the German telescope that was delivered and in the plane, but not close to flying.
Meyer organized a Dryden risk assessment team that looked at a list of the threats to the program, starting with how to develop confidence that the aircraft would take flight and deliver on the promise of ground breaking infrared astronomy observations. As part of the analysis, Dryden's Brad Neal was detailed to L-3 Communications in Waco, Texas, where the aircraft was undergoing modernization.
A proposal was developed to conduct the program and steps were laid out as to how to get to the first science flights. An independent review concluded Dryden could do the work and the SOFIA program management became the center's responsibility and he was asked to lead it, Meyer said.
Accurate schedules and making milestones would be the first steps to reestablishing confidence in the program. Networking with NASA partners at Ames Research Center, NASA Headquarters, the German partners and the science community was another key goal.
When the aircraft arrived at Dryden in 2007, Meyer organized a ceremony that marked a new start for the program and helped reaffirm support. People were also able to see the aircraft and that it was indeed flying.
Technically, the program was realigned and contracts reworked to ensure that partners were contributing based on their skills and specialties, Meyer said. The biggest technical challenge was the controller that opened and closed the door over the cavity where the telescope is housed in the aft of the aircraft. Dryden engineers who were assigned to fly on the aircraft with contract personnel helped resolve the issues. Dryden is known for its aircraft integration work and this was a problem for which center engineers were ideally suited to resolve, he said.
He didn't hesitate when responding to a question about his best day at work - that was his first flight in the triple-supersonic SR-71 Blackbird aircraft.
His first project at Dryden, as a full time engineer, was researching why the ventral fin ripped away from the YF-12, a variant of the Lockheed A-12 design. He dreamed about what it would be like flying the Blackbird, a path he later pursued.
Later in his career, he and Marta Bohn-Meyer, also hired as a Dryden engineer, found themselves with a unique opportunity. The retirement of Vic Horton and Ray Young left no qualified flight test engineers for supporting Dryden research flights.
Meyer and Bohn-Meyer had been flying in research aircraft such as the F-14, and they had the opportunity to receive pressure suit training to support F-104 flights after Horton and Young retired.
Meyer and Bohn-Meyer, who were husband and wife, flew aerobatic aircraft competitively and were friends with many of the pilots. For those reasons, the transition to flight crew, as additional tasks to their main jobs, went well. In 1994 Meyer was a member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team that represented the United States in the biennial World Aerobatic Championships in Hungary and ultimately flew in three world championships.
When the SR-71, another A-12 variant, came to Dryden in the early 1990s, Meyer and Bohn-Meyer asked then chief pilot Bill Dana if they could be considered for the SR-71 flight test engineer positions and Dana agreed. They served as flight crewmembers with the Dryden SR-71 program until it ended in 1999.
Tragically, Marta Bohn-Meyer, who was Dryden's chief engineer, perished in a 2005 accident in the custom-built aerobatic aircraft they designed.
Prior to his appointment as the SOFIA program manager, Meyer was associate director for Programs from 2004 through 2006. He previously held management positions including acting deputy center director, director of aerospace projects and director of Research Engineering.
Earlier in his career, Meyer served as chief of the Research Engineering Aerodynamics Branch and chief engineer on the F-18 High Angle of Attack research project that produced information to improve maneuverability of future aircraft that use thrust vectoring at high angle of attack.
He also led aerodynamic loads tests on the space shuttle thermal protective tile system prior to the first space shuttle mission, development of a real-time cockpit trajectory guidance system, and studies of laminar (smooth) air flow involving F-111, F-14 and F-15 aircraft.
From 1972 to 1975, Meyer was a student in the cooperative education program between Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., and Dryden. One of his projects was aerodynamic drag reduction study on ground vehicles with Ed Saltzman. Meyer noted the truck studies had a significant impact on long distance trucking fuel efficiency and he saw the results of the effort on aerodynamic trucks as he drove to work.
Meyer graduated from Purdue with a Bachelor of Science in aeronautics and astronautics engineering in 1975. From 1976 to 1978 Meyer was on a two-year temporary assignment at the NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., as a test engineer in the eight-foot transonic pressure wind tunnel. Meyer carried out wind tunnel investigations of winglets and the Citation III business aircraft under the supervision of famed Langley aerospace engineer Richard Whitcomb.
In 2008, Dryden employees selected Meyer as one of Dryden's most influential driving forces. Nominators described Meyer as "a visionary," as "hard-working and fair" and "a gifted pilot."
Meyer has written or co-authored more than two dozen reports and professional papers.
As he closes the chapter on his work life, he has a rich retirement planned with travel and getting his wrench moving to complete restoration of two 1950s Corvettes and begin work on a third. He also plans to complete the refurbishment of a Beech Staggerwing aircraft.
"I had an awesome career at Dryden and I can't think of any place I would have rather worked!" Meyer said.
While retirement beckons for now, don't be too surprised to see Meyer consulting for Dryden or elsewhere in the aeronautics field because to him it's not just a job, it's a way of life.
By Jay Levine