Our History – In Their Own Words
Max T. Weiss is largely credited with shaping the Aerospace Laboratories during their formative years in the early 1960s. He first joined Aerospace in 1961, after spending nearly 10 years at Bell Labs and 2 years at Hughes Aircraft. He joined Aerospace as Director of the Electronics Research Laboratory. He became Assistant General Manager of the Laboratories Division in 1963 and General Manager in 1964. He served in that capacity until 1967, when he left Aerospace to work for TRW. He returned a year or so later to serve as General Manager of the Electronics and Optics Division, where he remained for 10 years. In 1978, he became Vice President and General Manager for Laboratory Operations. He served as Engineering Group Vice President from 1981 until 1986, when he left Aerospace to work for Northrop Grumman.
Throughout his long career, Weiss received numerous awards for his research in physics and electrical engineering. He received the IEEE Centennial Medal in 1984 and was named an IEEE Fellow in 1987. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1986 based on his “research into the use of ferrites in microwave components, and for extensive contributions to the research, engineering, and development of military space systems.” IEEE awarded Weiss its Fredrik Philips Award in 1993, citing his “leadership in building electronics research and engineering organizations for the development and operation of national security space systems.” Even after his retirement, Weiss remained active in the industry, and served on the Defense Science Board/Air Force Scientific Advisory Board Task Force on Acquisition of National Security Space Programs (aka “The Young Report”) in 2003.
Steven R. Strom interviewed Max Weiss on June 12, 2005, at his home in Los Angeles.
Note: transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
Strom: Dr. Weiss, could you please provide me with some information about your personal background prior to coming to work for The Aerospace Corporation?
Weiss: I was born in Hungary, and came out in ’29, just the right time for the Depression. And my family—like typical families, immigrant families—of course education was very important to them, education of their children. So that was a goal—they wanted their children to become professionals. And I went to CCNY, which is City College of New York, and took up electrical engineering, even though my interest was physics. […] But I decided that you’ve got to earn a living, and as an electrical engineer, you can do a better job of earning a living without having to go to graduate school. Of course, the war was on as well, at the time, and I went to City College in early ’40, you know, ’40 to ’43. And I served in the Navy as Chief Petty Officer with a peculiar job in Washington, and when the war ended I went to MIT—Master’s in EE, and a doctorate in physics.
Strom: What year would this have been?
Weiss: I went to MIT in ’46 and finished by ’51.
Strom: Could you tell me something about your employment career prior to working for Aerospace?
Weiss: Well, following my doctorate at MIT, I went to Bell Labs, which was absolutely a most wonderful experience and probably had enormous influence on my future career. At Bell Labs, of course, they had superb facilities and outstanding people. You had the ability to work with the most brilliant people you can imagine, and when you want to do an experiment, there were facilities there, you can get materials, you can do anything. And in fact, I had the opportunity to write a paper with somebody who became a Nobel Prize winner—Phil Anderson1. And one of the most important things you learn at Bell Labs is, you ask questions, you don’t take anything for granted. If there’s a problem, if something unique happens in an experiment, you find out why. And they had the resources and the funding to do that, whereas in a commercial laboratory, if this product doesn’t work, I could merely go on to the next one, rather than trying to find out why. And that questioning attitude was extremely useful to me in all kinds of situations, whether at Aerospace, or at Northrop, or in personal life. And I think it was the highlight of my life, the 10 years I spent at Bell Labs.
Strom: I understand that later you did some work for Hughes?
Weiss: Yes, I went to Hughes for about two years, and then I was recruited to come to Aerospace. Hughes was, you know, a similar organization. Both Hughes and TRW—and in a sense, Aerospace—were founded by Ramo-Wooldridge2. And I believe both… I know Wooldridge worked at Bell Labs, but I believe Ramo… Ramo was General Electric—but I’m sure Wooldridge was [at Bell], and he tried to pattern research on Bell Labs. And STL, which is sort of the TRW name for the space part of it, was also patterned pretty much after Bell Labs in many ways.
Strom: You began working for Aerospace just one year after the corporation was founded. Can you tell me some of your impressions of working at Aerospace during the company’s early years?
Weiss: Well, number one, space then was probably the most exciting technical field ever, at that time, so it was a rare opportunity to get in sort of on the ground floor of the space programs. So it was, I think, a tremendous opportunity, and a tremendous opportunity to fashion the laboratories. I worked for Chal Sherwin3 at that time, who was VP for labs, and an excellent researcher, a very fine person, but he got involved in government work. And so I had pretty much a free hand both fashioning the electronics lab, which I directed, and starting from almost nothing to building it up. But because he was away, for awhile I was Acting and then Deputy Director for all of the labs.
Exciting times. Decision making was quick, and—for example, the laser was invented, and within months we had a laser laboratory. I wanted the antenna on what was Building 120 (maybe it’s still there, I think it’s still there). I’d spend ten minutes with Dr. Getting4, and he’d say, “Fine, go ahead.” So it was a wonderful opportunity. But the most important thing, one of the contributions I made in those early days is to get the programs to accept research as an important element and to get the Air Force to accept that. Because, you know, the funding is always difficult for research—it’s not immediate. But we tried very hard to be useful to them. And in fact, I invented MOIE5. I recall… In fact, let me tell you a little story about that antenna. I was in my office and somebody came over, as they were having a big meeting with the contracting officer, the Air Force contracting officer, and [said], “They want you.” So I came down and they said, “You’re in trouble,” you know, getting in this meeting with the contracting officer. So, they asked me—this was the question that the contracting officer wanted to know—”Is this antenna a capital investment or should it be expensed?” And my answer was, “Which pocket has more money?” So, the contracting officer said, “Well, for the first time, I met an honest man at Aerospace.” And after that we became friends, very close friends, and we had a weekly luncheon discussing the relationships and what we were going to do, and getting his approval for things.
So it was wonderful. We had difficulty with funding as overhead, so I said, “We ought to have a special fund called Mission-Oriented Research and Experimentation.” So he said, “No, I don’t like that term, because that’s MORE.” M-O-R-E. I said, “Okay, let’s call it Mission-Oriented …. what’s “i” stand for?… Investigation.” And that is how MOIE was invented. It was of course wonderful to be able to get that special funding, which I assume is still there.
So I think the ability to meet challenges—and quick decisions were of course a very important part—and the ability to hire new people, because you know, there weren’t too many—although we inherited the STL labs, we built up several new ones. So those were the early years.
Strom: Could you provide an overview of the remainder of your career at Aerospace?
Weiss: Well, you know, I left for a couple of years to go to TRW, and had some excellent experience at TRW heading up their microelectronics center, which was a business profit-and-loss center. I learned a lot about, you know, the contractor side of the issues. I came back not in the research labs but heading up the electronics and optics division. And…
Strom: What was the time period we are talking about?
Weiss: Late ’60s—’69, I think—when I came back. Ivan Getting wanted me back, so he just insisted, and finally I came back. And they were exciting times there. I formed the new Donovan Laboratories. I decided that there ought to be, in addition to the research labs, there ought to be engineering laboratories. And Donovan6 had retired, and I decided to name it for him. And he was extremely grateful—it meant an awful lot to him. So it was a great opportunity.
Strom: Could you relate some of your favorite programs that you worked on during your tenure at Aerospace?
Weiss: I think the classified programs, of course, were extremely interesting. Technologically they were, you know, remarkable forward-looking programs. You can get things done very rapidly. They were fascinating. The other I would say: DSP,7 in which, in fact, I headed a committee toward the end of my career at Aerospace to… You know, DSP is a spinning satellite, and I recommended that we should have a three-axis satellite. And finally, of course, it’s happening now. I keep wondering that, had they really done that earlier, whether they’d have the SBIRS8 problems that they now have. It could have been an easier transition at that time, but neither TRW wanted it—because as long as it remained the way it is, you know, they were sole source—and the Air Force, I guess, just did not have the money. But we wrote a report on that. Working for Eb Rechtin9 as well as, you know, was also a remarkable experience.
Also, a couple of other interesting things: I established a computer sciences lab, and somehow I had foresight in distributed and personal computing, which the professionals could not—did not—understand and did not tolerate. When I became head of engineering, the Engineering Group, I wanted to establish a department of distributed and personal computing. I went to the VP for Information Systems, you know, the head of the computing division, and told him, “You know, we’ve got to establish this, and could you nominate one of your department heads to head it up.” He said, “We cannot tolerate having people just do their own computing.” You know, you’ve got to send in your cards or whatever, and have the central computer, which was an enormously expensive, large computer, do it; and you hand it in in the evening, you get your results in the morning—you know, that sort of old-fashioned stuff. And so you can’t… you know, that’s not the future. This was 1980, and nobody, none of the professionals in the computing division, wanted the job. So I took a 28-year-old and had him report directly to me, and his job was to introduce PCs all over, and distributed computing. Three years later, of course, the computer division insisted that it come back to them. And, it sort of illustrates that, you know, [for] expanding thinking, somewhat out of the box, you need an outsider. The people within it can’t do it, and I’ve noticed that in so many men here, other experiences I’ve had throughout my career. So that’s an interesting observation. But that was the most glaring one. You’d expect them to know trends; they didn’t.
Strom: That was a particularly outstanding example.
Weiss: Yes, and it isn’t just the head of it, but I spoke to each of the department heads, and they all thought it was a bad idea.
I think I may have told my experience with FLTSATCOM?
Strom: Yes, why don’t you relate it again.
Weiss: FLTSATCOM was on the launch stand in Florida, and the Naval Research Lab said, “You can’t launch it because it has contaminated transistors on it.” But bringing it back is extremely expensive—and opening it up and replacing it. So they asked the labs, they asked me, to look into this and make a recommendation.
Well, we studied it day and night, seven days a week for two weeks, sliced and diced it up, and tried to find out what the chemistry and physics is. And we plotted accelerated testing against temperature, by raising temperature, and so on, and the lab staff said, “This thing’ll last seven years.”
So there was a big meeting with the admirals, and generals, and TRW. And first, TRW made a presentation—they recommended that they launch, but they didn’t have the technological rationale for it at all. Then Naval Research Lab said, “It will fail on launch, because the contacts are contaminated and it’ll break.” We had made tests on the strength of the contacts.
And then I came in, TRW was sent out, and I came. I was asked to give my recommendation. I said, “We believe it’ll last seven years,” that we’ve done the following tests, and we’ve done the arrhenious plots, and whatever, and from an engineering point of view, we see no reason why you should not launch. Besides, if you bring it back, and open it up, and remove and put new stuff in, chances are you’ll make it worse, not better. And the admiral asked, “Well, what’ll happen if it fails on launch?” And I said, “I’ll be in trouble.” [laughing] I’ll be in trouble! I mean, I’m out of a job!
And ten years later…. It lasted 10 years. So is it luck? I believe we did a good job. And so Aerospace’s role does not always have to be the policeman who says, “No.” It also, at times, you know, because of its expertise—which in many cases exceeds that of the contractor, and has the research capabilities—it could go the other way and say, “You could do something, even though there is some risk.” So Aerospace has that role as well.
In general, it was a very exciting time for me—Aerospace was just a wonderful, wonderful time. And Eb Rechtin and Ivan Getting, whom I’ve worked for and with in many ways, you know, were excellent role models, and I believe I helped them a lot. And it was very satisfying to have them have the kind of confidence in me, you know, that is not all that common. They had full confidence in me.
Strom: You mentioned in your discussion the role that Aerospace played in the FLTSATCOM incident. Are there any macro-lessons that you learned from your experiences with national security space programs?
Weiss: Well, I think first of all, Aerospace has to work cooperatively with the contractors and with the Air Force. At the same time, it must be very firm regarding its recommendations. It may require them to make recommendations which says, you know, “You’ve got to do things differently or more expensively.” And if that’s what the Aerospace competent staff says, we’ve got to be very firm about it and not give in to that pressure that you have because of schedule and funding. Aerospace has to give its honest opinion. Schedule and funding are very important, but the reliability of the spacecraft and mission success is really important. You can meet the schedule, you can meet the cost—and it fails. That doesn’t make sense. And Aerospace has that responsibility, sort of to be the conscience of the programs. I think it’s essential to have a high degree of competence, and hopefully that, you know, we can recruit the kind of people who have that competence. Because without that, you know, the respect of the contractors and the Air Force disappears.
So that’s one of the things that we have to be very careful about; we have to keep up with, you know, with technology. As the technology changes, we have to keep up with it. You know, when computers came in, as I mentioned, I organized the computer sciences lab. When optics became ever more important, and image processing became very important, you know, we established a lab for that. And a reliability department, I think—I’m very proud of that. I established a reliability department that sort of formulated “class S” parts,10 although in the 1990s it was decimated. But while I was there, I think its contribution was truly major.
So you’ve got to keep up with the needs of programs, with technology. As things change, you’ve got to change. And Aerospace must have the resources to make those changes and retrain people as necessary. And must always have its independence—you know, its reviews of programs must be independent and not under pressure. And I don’t think they are under pressure, from the Air Force or contractors, but they have to maintain that, and press for the kind of resources necessary to be able to do a good job.
Strom: Since you have such a broad overview of the history of The Aerospace Corporation, what role do you foresee for Aerospace in the near future? Do you see any particular challenges for the company in the years ahead?
Weiss: Well, you know my visibility of Aerospace right now is very limited. I’ve been away 19 years. That’s a long time. I return and visit them from time to time, but still, it’s limited. But I believe that in the 1990s and early 2000, we had what is called Total Systems Program Responsibility (TSPR), where the contractor was given an awful lot of freedom—was given, you know, contract, specification, and that’s it. And Aerospace’s role was diminished. And the result was a lot of problems with mission success, and cost overruns—enormous ones—and the loss of capability at Aerospace—like that reliability department, which probably had 20 people and went down to four, or something like that. It’s got to regain that strength. And it’s got to regain its role both in setting the requirements for programs, setting the requirements and components and, you know, how it’s built and tested as well as independent reviews of the programs. And I believe it’s happening. I believe it’s happening. The Air Force appreciates it now a lot more, and the whole TSPR idea is changing. And we’re putting in more detailed requirements, which Aerospace, you know, can monitor. So I think that’s one of the big challenges—as well with keeping up with new technology, as I have mentioned. Some of my former comments, of course, are applicable.
Strom: Can you tell something of your work at Northrop Grumman after you left Aerospace?
Weiss: Well, it really was a second career. I started out running the research labs for one year, and then moved to headquarters, and then became a senior executive—you know, an elected officer, running a major division, all of Electronics. So it was a very rapid rise, and extremely enjoyable, proving that a guy from Aerospace—which is not a profit-making organization—could run, you know, a 3000-man or whatever organization—I don’t know, it was much more than that. By the time I retired, it was a couple-of-billion-dollar business; when I started, it was about an 800-million-dollar business. And we were able to do it.
Strom: Dr. Weiss, you have received many honors during the course of your career. Which are you most proud of?
Weiss: Probably election to the National Academy of Engineering, which came as a total surprise to me. I have since nominated, you know, many people for the National Academy. And despite the rules, in general, people involved do know about it—you know the people who are being nominated because you need their help in getting data. The rules are that you’re not supposed to tell them. In my case, I didn’t know until I got a letter saying I’d been elected. I just didn’t know at all. So clearly, other people independently were able to write something up and elect me without my involvement at all. It was extremely satisfying, and of course it is one of the highest honors that any engineer can have. You know, there are only about 2000 members, so that’s probably the most important one.
There are others, you know, Frederick Phillips Award of IEEE, which honored me for management of technical work […] is the second most important honor. That’s as far as honors go. But I’m also very proud of my publications, which were mostly Bell Labs.
Strom: Do you have any final thoughts before we conclude the interview about the work that you did during your years with Aerospace?
Weiss: Well, it was an exciting time for the space program, so I enjoyed it immensely. I think I made some contributions. And the ability to lead the Labs, and then Engineering, and make a contribution to the various programs, some of which I’ve illustrated with examples, you know, was extremely satisfying. And on the whole, I’m very, very grateful for the opportunities that both Eb Rechtin and Ivan Getting gave me. They had a lot of confidence in me, and we maintained the relationship, ’til Ivan’s death, you know, I visited him. And we still maintain the relationship with Eb Rechtin. So clearly, I had an impact, and that’s extremely satisfying.
1 Philip W. Anderson received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977.
2 Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge worked at Hughes Aircraft from 1946 to 1953, when they left to form the Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. This company merged with Thompson Products in 1958 to become TRW. The Space Technology Laboratories (STL) was a division of TRW; many of Aerospace’s early scientists came from STL.
3 Chalmers (“Chal”) Sherwin served as vice president and general manager of Laboratory Operations from 1961 to 1963.
4 Ivan Getting, first president of Aerospace.
5 MOIE: Mission-Oriented Investigation and Experimentation.
6 Allen F. Donovan served as Senior Vice President, Technical, since the founding of Aerospace in 1960 until 1978.
7 DSP: Defense Support Program.
8 SBIRS: Space-Based Infra-Red System.
9 Eberhardt (“Eb”) Rechtin was president and CEO of Aerospace from 1977 through 1987.
10 Class S: space-rated.