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After 40 Years, NASA's Bob Meyer Calls it a Career
Meyer and retired NASA Dryden research pilot Ed Schneider as 'cheeseheads' Meyer and retired NASA Dryden research pilot Ed Schneider were always ready to insert a bit of levity into any situation, including donning "Cheesehead" hats upon their return to Dryden after showing off one of Dryden's now-retired SR-71s at the Experimental Aircraft Association's convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1997. (NASA photo)

When NASA's 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 in their career path.

Bob MeyerDespite demanding schedules and technical challenges, Meyer often found the chance for a lighter moment during his six years as SOFIA program manager. (NASA /Tom Tschida) That's sage advice that Meyer has lived by. It has served him well during his 40 years as an aerospace engineer, project manager and program manager with NASA, most of that time spent at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California. Meyer recently retired from Dryden, just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his arrival at the center as a cooperative education student. He rose thorough the ranks during his four decades to fill several high-level positions at the center, capping his career with six years as program manager of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.

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 flying observatory, which features a German-built 2.5-meter infrared telescope mounted in a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. To succeed, he had to navigate the program through a gauntlet of prior cost overruns, politics, delays and technical challenges.

In his previous role as acting deputy center director, Meyer looked at the SOFIA as a potential fit for Dryden's capabilities. It also was an opportunity to diversify the center's portfolio. At the time, aeronautics research accounted for about 70 percent of Dryden's work, but was projected to decrease.

Bob Meyer and Marta Bonn-MeyerMeyer and his late wife Marta Bohn-Meyer often had the chance to do hands-on work together on several flight research projects, such as laminar airflow studies on this F-14. (NASA photo) 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 its first image with the German telescope that had already been installed in the plane, but not close to flying astronomical science missions.

Meyer organized a Dryden risk assessment team that looked at a list of threats to the program, starting with how to develop confidence that the aircraft would take flight and deliver on the promise of pioneering infrared astronomy observations. As part of the analysis, a proposal was developed to complete the development program and steps were laid out 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. Meyer was tabbed to lead it.

Development of accurate schedules and making scheduled milestones would be the first steps to re-establishing confidence in the program. The SOFIA's arrival at Dryden in 2007 marked a new start and helped reaffirm support.

Bob Meyer and SR-71Clad in full pressure suits, flight engineers Marta Bohn-Meyer and Bob Meyer and pilots Ed Schneider and Rogers Smith lined up on the ladder beside SR-71B Blackbird No. 831 that NASA Dryden flew in high-speed research experiments in the 1990s. (NASA /Tony Landis) Technically, the program was realigned and contracts reworked to ensure that partners where 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 aircraft's aft fuselage, an issue for which Dryden engineers were ideally suited to resolve.

But it wasn't the SOFIA that gave what Meyer recalls as his best day at work -- that was his first flight as a flight test engineer in the triple-supersonic SR-71 Blackbird aircraft.

His first project at Dryden was investigating why a ventral fin ripped away from the YF-12, an earlier variant of the Lockheed design. He dreamed about what it would be like flying the Blackbird, a dream he later pursued.

Later in his career, he and his wife, Marta Bohn-Meyer, also a Dryden engineer, found themselves with a unique opportunity. The retirements of Vic Horton and Ray Young left a dearth of flight test engineers available to support research flights on high-performance aircraft at Dryden. Meyer and Bohn-Meyer had been flying in other research aircraft and took the opportunity to receive pressure suit training to support F-104 flights after Horton and Young retired.

Because the couple flew aerobatic aircraft competitively and were friends with many of the pilots, they were accepted as flight crew as a "co-lateral" duty to their main jobs.

(Meyer was a member of the 1994 U.S. Aerobatic Team that represented the United States in the biennial World Aerobatic Championships in Hungary and ultimately flew in three world championships.)

Bob Meyer and SOFIA telescope.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 to members of the NASA Advisory Council. (NASA / Tom Tschida) When the SR-71 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, who was by then Dryden's chief engineer, perished in 2005 in the crash of the custom-built aerobatic aircraft they had designed.

Prior to his appointment as SOFIA program manager, Meyer was Associate Director for Programs from 2004 through 2006. He previously held other high-level organizational 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 HARV project that produced data to improve maneuverability of future aircraft by use of thrust vectoring at high angles of attack.

Bob Meyer with squirt bottleMeyer wasn't averse to doing the down and dirty work of aerospace engineering, even if it meant cleaning a flight experiment mounted between the landing gear of this F-104 in 1985. (NASA photo) He also led aerodynamic loads tests on the space shuttle thermal protection tile system prior to the first space shuttle mission, developed a real-time cockpit trajectory guidance system, and studied methods of improving laminar (smooth) air flow on F-111, F-14 and F-15 aircraft.

Meyer's first three years at Dryden were as 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 led by Ed Saltzman. Meyer noted the results of the studies led to design improvements that have had a significant impact on the fuel efficiency of large trucks.

Meyer graduated from Purdue with a bachelor's degree in aeronautics and astronautics engineering in 1975. He then began 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.

Bob Meyer water survival trainingAs a flight crew member on high-performance aircraft, Meyer was periodically required to undergo water survival training while in a full pressure suit in case he ever had to eject from an aircraft over water. (NASA photo) 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 on a variety of aeronautical research projects and subjects.

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 Chevrolet Corvettes and begin work on a third. He also plans to complete the refurbishment of a 1930s-era Beech 17 Staggerwing biplane.

"I had an awesome career at Dryden and I can't think of any place I would have rather worked!" Meyer said.
By Jay Levine, Editor, The X-Press
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center