Throughout five decades of federal service at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Peter Wilhelm has been involved in the development, deployment and operation of more than 95 satellites critical to the nation’s defense and intelligence gathering capabilities.
Entering Navy civilian service in 1959, Wilhelm played a pivotal role in the country’s first surveillance satellite used during the Cold War. He was a key player in the first Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite in 1977, the satellite used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to first map the surface of the moon, and the system used to coordinate emergency response after Hurricane Katrina.
Now at age 74, Wilhelm, director of NRL’s Naval Center for Space Technology, is seeking to create an international consortium to launch micro satellites to keep track of all ships on earth at one time. He is also working on solving the problem of orbital debris.
“He’s the senior and most widely recognized scientific figure in the space community today. If it’s been in space in the last 50 years, his fingerprints are on it,” said John Montgomery, the NRL’s director of research.
Tony Tether, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said Wilhelm contributed significantly to American satellites and GPS technology, but also brought strong management and keen technical and engineering abilities that made those achievements successful.
“Continuously over 50 years, Pete has been successful in tackling new challenges,” said Tether. “He has been a driver of innovation and creative problem solving.”
At the start of his stellar career, Wilhelm was assigned responsibility for developing the radio transmitters and receivers for the nation’s first surveillance satellite, the Galactic Radiation Background Experiment. This satellite’s ability to collect electronic intelligence enabled the United States to make contingency plans for strategic routes into the Soviet Union.
By 1964, Wilhelm was promoted to lead all NRL satellite programs that over the years have provided the nation with worldwide capability for collecting intelligence on potential threats to U.S. forces.
He led the development of a series of satellites that demonstrated the use of atomic clocks to improve shipboard navigation, and this effort resulted in NRL developing and launching the first GPS satellite. This breakthrough led to a constellation of GPS satellites that now provide accurate location for everything from cell phones to automobiles, aircraft and ships at sea.
Another satellite, the Clementine, mapped the surface of the Moon and collected more than 1.2 million images. Analysis of these data led NRL to postulate the presence of water on the Moon, a hugely important discovery that was validated with several successive NASA satellites and now significantly increases the feasibility of a manned Moon base.
Another satellite under Wilhelm’s umbrella has provided the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the means of measuring global weather patterns and determining wind speed and direction over the world’s oceans from space. This is of critical importance for weather forecasting as well as military planning.
In addition, Wilhelm has been responsible for engineering the ground systems that control the satellites and exploit the collected data. These systems support a variety of important civilian applications, as well as military uses including signal intelligence, electronic attack functions, communications capabilities, and command and control support.
“Many of his discoveries and achievements have been classified and he will never gain public recognition for their impact,” said Tether.
Wilhelm said he was always interested in satellites and space, and was attracted to government service because he could work in a dedicated research laboratory.
“The challenges were exciting. In the early days we didn’t know what would work—we were pioneers. We are always pushing the envelope,” said Wilhelm. “All the unknowns made it challenging, and once the satellites launched successfully, it was a huge thrill.”
Gary Federici, deputy assistant secretary of space programs for the Navy, said Wilhelm has led teams that have pushed the envelope, taken risks and created innovative technological advances for the nation. “Pete is truly a pioneer for national security,” Federici said.
Norman Augustine, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and a former undersecretary of the Army, said much of Wilhelm’s work is still widely in use or has been improved over time.
“There are not very many people who have worked on as many spacecraft as he has and had as many successes.” Augustine said.