Careers - Robert Stewart

NASA Astronaut/Director of Advanced Programs Nichols Research Corp.

Mathematics can be an end in itself for some people, or it can open a multitude of other doors. The first part of my professional career did not rely heavily on a math background. I flew armed helicopters in Vietnam and was a flight instructor in primary helicopters. But soon the dividends were realized.

I was sent to the Army’s Guided Missile Systems Officer Course. The heart and soul of the course was applied mathematics, and I was well prepared. Laplace transforms became tools for stability and control analysis, not mathematical abstractions. Calculus of Variations became a means for computing optimum flight profiles. In short, the mathematics took on a concrete reality.

A Masters Degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington set the stage for my next step, the US Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS). USNTPS is an ideal mix of the theoretical and the practical. The fine nuances of the stability equations explored in the classroom in the morning, are graphically demonstrated in the air that afternoon, thus cementing the relationship between the mathematics and the real world.

As an experimental test pilot assigned to Edwards Air Force Base, CA, I was fortunate enough to test five prototype helicopters in four years. The highlight was being the project officer and chief test pilot on the Apache attack helicopter. The ultimate test of a mathematical analysis is to bet your life on it by flying an aircraft that isn’t quite house broken yet.

Following a very stiff competition, I was selected as a NASA Astronaut. My background led to assignment as the Astronaut Office representative to develop the space shuttle Entry Flight Control System, a task I pursued for three years. I found that it was harder to bet someone else’s life on a mathematical analysis than it was to bet my own.

While at NASA, I flew two space shuttle flights. On STS-41B Bruce McCandless and I conducted the first orbital flight tests of the Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU), the first untethered extra-vehicular activity from a spacecraft in flight. Being all alone, 1,000,000 feet above the earth, traveling at nearly 17,500 mph, makes one very happy that Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler were steadfast in their pursuit of mathematics. In 1987, I was promoted to Brigadier General. Retired from the Army in 1992, I am now Director of Advanced Programs, Nichols Research Corporation, Colorado Springs.

It should be evident that each step in my career has rested on a firm foundation in mathematics. For me, the study of mathematics was the key that opened the doors to the universe.

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Updated: 18 Sep 2007