Simon Ramo Founders Award

2009 Founders Award Acceptance Remarks

The 2009 Founders Award was presented to Dr. John R. Casani, Special Assistant to the Director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "for distinguished innovation and leadership in robotic spacecraft engineering and project management that has enabled the first four decades of planetary and deep space exploration.”  These remarks were delivered at the NAE Annual Meeting on Sunday, October 4, 2009, in Newport Beach, CA.

It is a great honor for to be here tonight to receive the National Academy of Engineering Founders Award. I want to begin by expressing my profound appreciation to the Academy, the nominators, and the Award Committee for this great recognition. When Chuck Vest called to let me know, I was truly amazed. This is an award that few would ever anticipate—certainly not. 

While I am surprised to be receiving the Founders Award, you may be surprised to learn that you have bestowed this esteemed engineering award on a person who began college in liberal arts and did not switch to engineering until the end of the sophomore year. While such redirections in college are not unusual, most go the other way. How I came to choose an engineering education and how that choice affected my career as an engineer and as an engineering manager will be the focus of my remarks this evening. It is my hope that my experience may reveal some clues as to how we might encourage talented young people to succeed in engineering careers.

 Although I’ve always had an abiding interest in gadgetry, and was drawn to all things mechanical growing up, I was never introduced to, or even aware of, the field of engineering. No one in my family, or circle of friends, ever knew of anyone who was an engineer, much less actually met one. My father owned a wholesale confectionary business in Philadelphia, and all of his friends and all of my relations were business people.

In fact, my father placed a high value on a liberal arts education, and he very much wanted to go to college. His life’s biggest disappointment was that he was denied that opportunity when his family decided he should join the family business as soon as he was discharged from the Army at the end of World War I. His mother was a college graduate, as was my mother, and my father was determined that every one of his children would get a college education. Because he was interested in literature, he steered all of us in that direction.

I was sent to a Jesuit High school in Philadelphia where the curriculum consisted of four years of Latin, three years of classical Greek, four years of English Literature and English composition, American History, algebra, and high school physics. There were no courses in any other science, like chemistry or biology, and the subject of engineering was never once broached. Interestingly enough, the one class I liked best in four years of high school was a senior class called Physics. (Today it would probably be called something else.) I graduated from high school thinking I wanted to be a physicist, not even knowing that engineering was a college curriculum. Now, that might seem nearly impossible – that after a good high school education I had no idea a person could study engineering in college. Maybe today it would be impossible, but I would venture to say that even today, more people than you might think are similarly uninformed. In my case, I think my lack of awareness was directly related to my family’s, and my high school’s, lack of interest or understanding of engineering. By contrast, my guess is that most of you in this room grew up in an atmosphere where science and engineering were not unknown topics of conversation at the dinner table. Not so in my house.

So it was that I matriculated in liberal arts at the University of Pennsylvania in 1950, still unaware that engineering was a choice. At the end of the sophomore year, each student was required to declare a major. By that time all I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a physicist. I was otherwise at a loss as to what direction I should take. I suggested to my Dad that the best course of action for me would be to drop out of school and join the Air Force, with the thought that I would  be better able to make a curriculum choice after I had matured for a couple of years. He would hear none of it and sent me back to school, telling me not to come home until I had picked a major.

I returned to school and shared this dilemma with a casual friend, who happened to be a freshman who was studying electrical engineering. He was enthusiastic about his studies, and invited me to check out the Moore School (of Electrical Engineering). To make a long story short, I did just that, and was intrigued by what I saw. The dean accepted me as an entering sophomore for the fall semester, provided I went to summer session to make up math. I entered the Moore School, attended the summer session and started down the road to an education in engineering. To his credit, my father said, “Great!”

Three years later I graduated with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania Moore School of Electrical Engineering, now the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. My first job after graduating was in Rome New York, at the Rome Air Development Center, where I worked in Electronic Countermeasures. It was an exciting time for me, but not exciting enough to hold me through a harsh winter. After a week of temperatures that never got warmer than five degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, I started exploring other opportunities. Come June, I was on my way to California, and a new job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When I left Philadelphia to head west, I assured my folks I was only going to be gone a few years and would return with stories to amaze them about life on the frontier. To my circle of acquaintances, California was a magical place that few of them would ever visit. I had every expectation of eventually returning to my roots. As it turns out, I’m still in California, 53 years later, and I have never looked back.

I started work at JPL on July 11, 1956, and 53 years later, I’m still there and loving every moment of it. I can’t imagine a better career, and I am grateful to the people of JPL, NASA, and many in the aerospace community who gave me the opportunity to do things that had never been done before. I suppose you could say that I’m one of those people who does not have a life; rather,  my life is what I do.

In 1956 JPL was doing work for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville Alabama, and I was given the task of figuring out how to integrate an experimental radio-inertial guidance system into a Corporal missile for a test flight at White Sands. That was a big assignment for a kid just one year out of school! and it was a golden opportunity because it put me into direct contact with all the technical disciplines  involved in developing the CODORAC—or Coded Doppler, Ranging, and Command—guidance system inertial platform: for example, gyro and accelerometers, phased-locked loop tracking, pseudo-noise generators, radar beam splitting and spread spectrum modulation, antenna tracking and pointing, telemetry and command, and a host of other emerging technologies that turned out to be quintessential to the as-yet unforeseen challenges of robotic spacecraft.

The California Institute of Technology was managing and operating JPL for the Army at the time. When NASA was created as part of the Space Act of 1958, Caltech’s contract with the Army was novated to the new agency. At the same time, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was decommissioned, and the Ames and Langley research centers were also assigned to NASA..

My first job under NASA was as systems engineer for the Pioneer 3 and 4 spacecraft, designed to fly by the moon to test an optical limb sensing mechanism as a possible triggering device for use on a subsequent mission. Although Pioneer 3 suffered a launch vehicle failure and ultimately ended up in the South Atlantic Ocean, it returned data that revealed the outer van Allen radiation belt, distinctive from the belt discovered by Explorer 1. Pioneer 4 worked as intended and showed that the limb crossing detector would not serve the intended purpose.

Next, I was assigned to lead the design team for Ranger-class spacecraft and, a few years later, the design team for Mariner-class spacecraft. I was the project engineer for the first two Ranger launches as well as the project engineer for the first two Mariner spacecraft. After that, I progressively moved through a sequence of increasingly more responsible project management roles, always under the guidance and mentoring of a remarkable group of managers and pioneers in spacecraft development and management. It is literally true that I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. My mentors were the giants of robotic space exploration, including Jack James, Gene Giberson, Bill Pickering—who was JPL director and a founding member of the NAE—and Bud Schurmeier and Bob Parks, who also were NAE members. I truly believe that my career progression was carefully preprogrammed by them. Each assignment always seemed to provide just the right experience at just the right time to prepare me for the next assignment. I also believe the fundamentals of my early education, which included the liberal art of respectful argumentation, contributed directly to my selection for career development and ultimately for the success I have enjoyed as a manager of complex spacecraft projects.

What might this story tell us about how we might encourage promising young engineers? Earlier this year the AIAA sponsored a conference that focused on the problem of employee retention in the engineering industry, noting that most young professionals today will hold five or six different jobs over the course of their careers. That probably is not too different from what I had expected when I started working. But I stayed in the same company, enjoying a full and satisfying career without moving on. Why is that? It may be that many companies don’t or can’t offer what I had working at JPL: an environment that encourages professional growth, with managers and leaders who actively lay the groundwork for employee success; a series of jobs with ever-increasing responsibility; a sense that even as an employee, you “owned” the job; recognition for good performance; a sense of doing something that matters; and, most of all, the challenge and the satisfaction of doing what has never been done before – of making history. I know that those are the elements that to this day keep me at JPL. I may be naïve, but it seems to me that employers who provide employees with a sense of responsibility, job ownership, recognition, and support will likely be rewarded with less frequent turn over—and we all will be rewarded with a solid cadre of committed, highly qualified engineers to address the important challenges that face our nation and our world.

The Founder’s Award is not the end of my career, but it is most certainly a very high point. I want to again thank the Academy for this great distinction, and all of you for your kind attention.