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First Graduate Tells All
How It All Came to Be Forty Years Ago
It was a truly extraordinary time. The most devastating war in the history of mankind had just drawn to a close. We had the bomb and soon they had the bomb. We had the B-47 and the B-52, they had the Bear and the Bison. We looked upward to see long white streaks in the sky. They called them military "contrails." There was even talk that we might have commercial jets in a few years and there were those rockets at White Sands. We heard that one of them might even be able to launch an artificial earth satellite one day.We practiced "duck and cover" at school and lived in constant fear of that blinding flash of thermonuclear light. Was there a nuclear gap? Was there a missile gap? Would the Cold War turn hot? We didn't know. We were dealing with the most closed society in history and they weren't talking. We weren't saying a lot either, but one thing was certain — we were all nervous — very nervous.
By a stroke of great daring and fortune, military technology pioneers and a select handful of world-class scientists were able to get into Germany at the end of the war and retrieve a small cadre of exceptional German scientists before they were scooped up and herded east. We owe more than we know to Brigadier General George Goddard, the father of photo-optical reconnaissance, who played a major role in getting many top scientists out and to the west. A young Aden Meinel was there too, doing his part. I would come to know these men and many of those German scientists quite well in the not-too-distant future.
I got the phone call from one of my fellow board members at the Memphis Astronomical Society who was also a serious HAM radio operator. "Well they did it," he shouted, almost deafeningly. "The Russians have put up an artificial satellite. They call it "Sputnik" and they say you can see it with your naked eye. It's also broadcasting a radio signal."
I knew the sky like the back of my hand and I was one of the first in the area to spot it as it came over Memphis. I'll never forget it. A second, even larger, Sputnik followed soon after. The year was 1957 and it was the beginning of the space age.
Less than a year earlier I had volunteered to be the Memphis Astronomical Society Area Coordinator for the Harvard College Meteor Watch program. We set up four- and five-person teams on the campus of Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) in Memphis to observe, plot, and count meteors for the national reporting network. A few of us were even part of the "Operation Moonwatch" network set up to observe and track artificial satellites when they were eventually placed in orbit, but I didn't take that project too seriously. I thought it would be years before there was a satellite up there other than our own moon and the moons of other planets — I was wrong.
I had been torn between history and archeology on the one hand, and science and astronomy on the other. I had even won the Daughters of the American Revolution prized Gold Medal as the outstanding history student in the region and had been active with archeology groups in the Memphis area. By then I had also won the grand prize in my school's first science fair with a homemade reflecting telescope and was routinely teaching local amateur astronomers how to make mirrors and telescopes of their own. The die was cast in 1957. I was going into science, optics and astronomy, not history and archeology. Sputnik had made the decision for me.
I knew a lot about astronomy and optics by the time I was sixteen from my telescope building obsession and my passion for observational astronomy, but I was practically clueless about what was going on in the military. We had heard of the Cold War. We were, in fact, right in the middle of its darkest and most ominous days, but most of us didn't fully appreciate the developing criticality of our national reconnaissance and surveillance programs.
In 1960 I was a freshman at the University of Tennessee and enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program when we got the news that a U-2 aircraft had been shot down over the Soviet Union and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been captured. Our overflight program had been exposed and it would soon get worse with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when another U-2 would be shot down and the pilot killed. I was only days away from having my United States Air Force Reserve unit being called up. It was that close — the Cold War almost got hot — very hot.
I didn't know at the time that the Air Force unit I would join upon graduation from the University of Tennessee just over a year later was General Goddard's old reconnaissance group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. I never dreamed I would be working with the officers, NCOs and civilians responsible for putting the strip cameras in the RF-101 aircraft that got the high-resolution images President Kennedy needed to eventually end the crisis. The nuclear armed missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba and one of the greatest global crises of the last half of the twentieth century would be averted. I did know one thing, however, and that was very clear. We absolutely had to have first-rate reconnaissance and surveillance systems and that meant optics — bigger optics, better optics, improved imaging systems, and a lot more people — highly trained and skilled people — working this field. Coincidentally, this was about the time the laser appeared on the scene and its long-term potential applications seemed almost limitless. (Note: One of my early projects at the Avionics Lab was called "laser metrology" and my chief investigator at Itek Corporation was a young Bob Shannon. A few years later, I would initiate a project in CGH holography for optical test applications. My principal researcher for this effort at Itek was a young University of Rochester graduate named Jim Wyant.)
It could mean our very survival as a free society. The United States Air Force and the Department of Defense knew this too and they were doing something about it. One of my first jobs in 1964 was to assist Wright Patterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Institute of Technology to set up massively expanded optics training and education programs for military and civil service engineers and scientists. A national survey of needs in optics showed that as a nation were woefully inadequate in optics education, just as the Physical Science Study Committee had found us grossly unprepared five years earlier in math and science at the time of Sputnik. I knew about this personally since my high school in Memphis was one of only a few in the state to offer the advanced PSSC Physics course. I was in that first PSSC class and it was quite a learning experience.
Just as General Goddard had been instrumental in setting up the now legendary Boston University Optical Research Laboratory in World War II, a unique team of optics pioneers that had been disbanded in the late 1950s, military and civilian movers and shakers were at it again. We needed to grossly expand optics education and we needed to do it fast. Fate and intense personal interest contrived to put me, a lowly Air Force Lieutenant, on that team.
First, a photo-optics training course was set up at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., but this in and of itself was not enough. Our Air Force team visited the University of Rochester Optics Institute several times in 1964 and 1965, but progress was slow — too slow. I took the Rochester two-week summer short course in optics in 1964 and used that opportunity to explore further options and opportunities for expanded degree programs for specially nominated DOD students at Rochester. When we were having trouble getting Rochester, the best-known university in the country at that time for advanced optics education, to agree to accept more than two Air Force-nominated students a year for graduate studies in optics, we reached an impasse — we wanted and desperately needed much more of a commitment.
(Note: Although our 1964-1966 interactions with Rochester did not result in the special DOD optics education initiatives we were seeking, it proved to be a wonderful experience for me. The opportunity to meet and to discuss optics with greats such as Dr. Rudy Kingslake, Dr. Lewis Hyde, Dr. Bob Hopkins, Dr. Phil Baumeister and others was especially rewarding.)
During this period I took graduate courses in physics at the Wright Patterson campus of Ohio State University. This campus would grow so rapidly that it would eventually split off from OSU and become Wright State University. Of course I also immersed myself into the world-class optics facilities at the Avionics Laboratory. Within a year I was routinely testing and evaluating the world's best and most advanced reconnaissance lenses and imaging systems. I flew many of these systems on experimental missions in B-47, B-52 and B-57 reconnaissance aircraft. I was also working with many of the German scientists that General Goddard had helped out of Germany at the end of World War II and with Dr. Jim Baker, Mr. Amrom Katz and other now legendary members of the disbanded Boston University Optics Group.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I got a call from the Colonel who was at that time the head of the Reconnaissance Division where I worked. He had been involved in our discussions with U of R and with AFIT. He had something he wanted me to take a look at. He would have someone bring it up to the Optics Lab where I worked. He didn't say much more.
That afternoon the document was on my desk and it changed my life and the lives of hundreds and thousands of others forever. It was a copy of Dr. Aden Meinel's "Proposal to Establish an Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona." I knew who Aden Meinel was. I knew of his international reputation in astronomy and atmospheric sciences, of his ground-breaking technical work and leadership positions at McDonald Observatory and Kitt Peak National Observatory, but we had never met nor talked. I also knew of Marjorie and her work. Her recent passing [in June 2008] was a great loss for all of us. I read the proposal, reviewed the plan, checked out the proposed faculty which was being assembled at that time and was literally blown away. Not only was Dr. Meinel willing to take military service students at his new Center, he was actively seeking DOD support for the Center! It was a dream come true. Of course there were interactions at much higher levels than mine, but I took the ball and ran with it like I was the only one in the world given this great opportunity — literally the dream of a lifetime.
I sprinted down the hill to AFIT, to the office of Harold Lilly who was point man for our Optics Education Initiative. "I've got to talk to Dr. Meinel," I excitedly told him. "I've reviewed his proposal to establish an Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona and it's exactly what we need. Can we call him now?"
"I suppose so," Hal said. In a minute or two Aden was on the phone with Hal and me. I was almost, but not quite, speechless. When I introduced myself I was amazed that he had heard of me, knew my name and was well aware of our optics education dilemma. We chatted for a few minutes and I quickly realized that I was speaking with a man of true scientific genius, prodigious energy and organizational ability far beyond anything I had ever imagined.
"Sir," I said, "one of our pivotal issues here is how many Air Force students would you be willing to accept each year over the near term? How many can the Center in its early embryonic state handle"?
Dr. Meinel's answer was simple and spoke to his brilliance and management responsiveness. He replied, "Jim, we will accept as many as you can qualify."
Mr. Lilly and I thanked Dr. Meinel and AFIT began its rapid response to the University of Arizona to include the infant Optical Sciences Center as officially approved under the AFIT Civilian Institutions Division for graduate study in optics for qualified Air Force students. Qualification requirements were in place within weeks and I was included in the list of the first formally qualified military attendees in early 1967. Twelve of the Center's first 42 graduates would be USAF officers.
Of course wheels were turning at much higher levels in the USAF and DOD to bring improved higher education opportunities to military and government civilian scientists and engineers, but the Optical Sciences Center was the true miracle of the 1960s. Dr. Ralph Zirkind of the DOD's Advanced Research Projects Agency had suggested that UA set up a special center for optics education a few years earlier. Strong support from the University of Arizona Foundation was an additional bonus. Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force, Dr. Harry Davis, and the USAF's Colonel (later General and USAF Chief of Staff) Lew Allen Jr. would also be closely involved. I was given the job of coordinating much of the behind-the-scenes activity on the military side in 1966 and 1967 as the Center continued to build up its faculty and prepare for the student onslaughts of 1967 and 1968. This in and of itself posed logistical problems since at that time there were no Optical Sciences Center buildings! It was one of the most exciting times of my life.
As students poured in from all over the United States and even from other countries, how did I, by now an Air Force Captain, gain the honor of being the first to graduate and receive the very first graduate degree conferred by the Committee on Optical Sciences? Although I was quite likely the most enthusiastic and excited student the Center had at that time, or at any time for that matter, I certainly wasn't the smartest. There was also a small handful of students at UA who had already begun to take a few optics courses that would eventually count toward their graduate degrees. These students had a head start on me, so to speak.
In 1967 I had no clue that I might be first to graduate. In fact, I was even proactively pursuing a doctorate degree program with AFIT and the Center. My advisor, Dr. Phil Slater (Congratulations Phil and Joan on your 50th wedding anniversary!) and other Center professors were encouraging me to do this and AFIT said I could have two full years there, possibly extendable up to 30 months, plenty of time to complete most if not all of my Ph.D. course requirements. My main concern was the dissertation. I had a few topics in mind for a master's thesis, but none of them seemed well suited to the more extensive requirements of the dissertation. Dr. Slater, Dr. Noble, Dr. Shack and I and others discussed this. I decided not to worry about it during my first semester. A small problem arose when I arrived at UA in May 1967. Dr. Noble informed me that the Center was not offering any summer courses in optics that year. I was disappointed since I wanted to plunge right in! Dr. Noble suggested courses in math, electrical engineering or computer science that might be useful.
I elected to take two graduate math courses that summer since I thought a good math background would be helpful as I entered the graduate optics course world. (Had I known what was ahead in Dr. Stavroudis' course on the foundation of Optics, I might have taken three!!!) As the second semester wound to a close in spring 1968, Dr. Slater and I were zeroing in on a thesis topic, but I still had my mind and hopes on the doctorate. I realized that I could meet all the Ph.D. course requirements easily by May 1969, well within my allotted AFIT window.
As the semester wound down in May 1968, I was searching feverishly for a Ph.D. dissertation topic and hoped to begin my research and final topic selection that summer. The wheels were turning, however, on a series of events that would change all that in a hurry. I was still studying for spring finals when the call came in, a call that would change my plans, and to a great extent, my life forever.
There was someone who wanted to talk to me and there was some urgency. This individual was flying in from Los Angeles and he would be landing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in about an hour. Could I meet the visitor at the flight line at Base Operations? It was sheer good fortune that Aden had been able to locate me on such short notice, but he did. I closed my books and left my cubbyhole office on the ground floor of the old Stewart Observatory building (remember, there were no Optical Science Center buildings then) and drove straight to the Base. I arrived at Base Ops and asked the status of the inbound T-39 from Los Angeles. They said it was just landing. I walked out to the arrival area to see the silvery two-engine USAF jet taxi up to Base Ops.
Three USAF officers exited the plane. They were Colonel (soon to be Brigadier General) Lew Allen Jr., Lieutenant Colonel Bill Shields and Captain Dick Wolf. I met them at the door. "Let's have lunch at the club, Jim," the Colonel said.
"Yes sir," I replied. "That would be nice."
We met a short distance away at the Officers Club and Colonel Allen asked me about my Optical Sciences Center study program and what I had worked on during my three-year stint at the optics lab at Wright-Patterson. The other two officers said little, deferring to the Colonel to do most of the talking. I must have answered two dozen questions over the next hour and threw in a few of my own.
At the end of the lunch he sprang it on me. "Jim," he said, "we have a job for you and it's an opportunity of a lifetime. We need you and your considerable optics expertise desperately, and we need it now."
"But sir," I responded, "I won't be out of here until June 1969, that's over a year from now, and I'm even planning on formalizing my agreement with AFIT to extend to January 1970 to see if I can meet all the Ph.D. requirements by then. Dr. Slater is pushing me to stay and work with him."
"I understand how you feel, Jim, but this is important on a national level. If you agree to report to Los Angeles by this September, I promise you the job and opportunity of a lifetime. ... You will never regret your decision to join us."
"How about the thesis," I asked nervously. "I'll have to agree on a final topic with Dr. Slater, write a thesis plan and get it approved, do the necessary research, write it up, go through the endless revisions and updates, get it approved and submitted, take my orals and accomplish all that in just over two months time — that's simply not possible."
"I think you can do it, Jim," Colonel Allen replied, looking me right in the eye with a conviction that instantly told me he wasn't kidding. "I'll talk to Aden personally and see if he can muster the Center's resources to help out. It's that important," he said. The three men left me at the Officers Club to return to their plane and fly back to Los Angeles.
"A long way to fly for lunch," I thought as they departed.
I sat there dumbfounded at what had just occurred in so short a time and what the next two or three months would be like. I was accustomed to 12-15 hour work days, but those would be nothing compared to what lay ahead. Luckily I had already amassed enough course credits for a master's degree ... it would all come down to the thesis.
I called Dr. Meinel. He was already aware of the situation. "What can I do to help?" he asked.
I had an idea how to do it, but it would require a minimum of two weeks back at my old optics lab at Wright-Patterson. I needed to measure, test, and reevaluate a series of reconnaissance lenses I had initially tested there back a few years earlier.
I also contacted Colonel Allen who said, "Go for it ... I'll talk to Aden too." A few days later I had military travel orders for two weeks temporary duty at the optics laboratory facility at Avionics Laboratory, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Dr. Meinel's and Colonel Allen's ability to do the seemingly impossible in record time were pivotal in making it all happen. Now it was up to me not to let them down. I was about to enter the whirlwind that wouldn't stop for an instant for the next three months.
I walked into Building 622 at Wright-Patterson two weeks later to find everyone there well aware of the urgency of my mission. The optical benches, test collimators, photographic processing labs, lenses, microscopes, film stores were all available to me 24 hours a day and I wasted no time diving into my work. It was one of the most intense two weeks of my life, but it worked. By late June I had the data I needed. The thesis writing began in earnest with the deeply appreciated assistance of my spouse, Cynthia, who was a superb typist and editorial assistant as the project raced forward. I couldn't have done it without her.
Remember this was 20 years before personal computers and word processors became commonplace. Typing was still done on electric and even manual typewriters with carbon paper copies. Copying machines were rare and primitive by today's standards. Editing, making changes and correcting mistakes was a laborious, frustrating, and time-consuming process.
I might never have made it if the Center had not decided to publish my thesis as an OSC Technical Report. Martha Stockton was wonderful with her assistance in turning my draft into a polished report. She helped with all the OSC reports at that time and she was a whiz. She also was well versed in all the arcane and esoteric University requirements for thesis and dissertations, something I had badly underestimated. Dr. Slater helped too with timely reviews and suggestions. Even Aden Meinel checked in occasionally to see if everything was on schedule. I also received my official military orders to report to Space and Missiles Systems Organization in Los Angeles in September. There was no turning back now.
As August rolled around we were coming down to the wire. The University was very strict about submission requirements and deadlines. If your thesis or dissertation had not met all the technical and administrative requirements at a certain hour on a certain day, you did not graduate with that class. It was as simple as that. It would all come down to literally a matter of minutes.
Dr. Meinel, Dr. Slater, Dr. Shack, Dr. Frieden, and Dr. Noble were there all around the table. Some of the greatest and most highly esteemed pillars of American optics were there to quiz me and discuss my thesis and explore what I really knew about optics. I answered every question and explained every facet of my thesis to this illustrious team and all were satisfied — all that is, but one.
Roland Shack thought that I should have tied my photographic resolution and image evaluation results and conclusions into a more expanded discussion of modulation transfer functions. Dr. Meinel and Dr. Slater said that would be nice, but was not essential to my thesis. I had actually thought about delving into much more detail on the MTF topic and special MTF issues if I had done a dissertation, but not for this thesis. Dr. Shack, however, was insistent.
Finally, Dr. Meinel said, "Look, Roland, I'll ask Jim to include a figure in his thesis tying his resolving power and image modulation contrast relationships and experimental results into an MTF and aerial image modulation (AIM) curve and that should suffice."
Roland agreed. Now I had to go home and figure out a way to do that overnight since I was at my submission deadline.
I did a few calculations, drew some curves on a sheet of paper, and came up with a single graph that seemed to me to explain the relationships adequately. I ran a copy by Dr. Shack the next day and he said "OK." I could tell by his tone that he would have liked additional discussion, but I had met the requirement given to me by Dr. Meinel and everyone else was satisfied.
There was only one problem. I had to insert this new figure into the thesis which was not a trivial task in the pre-word processor world. I hand-drafted the curves, inserted them into the thesis, did the necessary rewording, and rushed off to the University to accomplish formal submittal. Three o'clock was the deadline and for a few minutes I thought I was going to miss it. I literally ran all the way from the parking area at full speed and burst into the submission room totally out of breath, almost unable to speak.
A woman looked at her watch and the clock on the wall and said, "Well, Mr. Mayo, you cut it pretty close, didn't you?"
I could only shake my head blindly in agreement since I was too out of breath to speak. She got up, walked over to the door, and locked it. Within seconds, someone was pounding at the door to be let in with a thesis in hand. "Come back next semester," she said emotionlessly through the closed door. The pounding persisted along with a few unprintable epithets, but she would not open the door.
It was August 1968 and I had just become the Optical Sciences Center's first graduate.
There is a short postscript to this story. When we left for Los Angeles at the end of August, I had been far too busy to even consider going out to California to find a house. Since I had no address to give to the military transportation office all our household items, personal possessions, and worldly goods were designated for storage in the los Angeles area until we could find a house, give the address to the transportation office, and set up a date for delivery. The California housing market was a real shock after living in Tucson where you could buy a decent house for $12,000 and a really nice place with a big lot, views, and a pool for $20,000. The Los Angeles housing market prices in the nicer areas were more than double those of Tucson at that time! (I still find it hard to believe what 40 years can do to housing markets!)
It took a month to find something that we could afford without driving 70 miles a day round trip to work and when I called to schedule delivery of our stored goods, I was informed they couldn't find them! In a few days they called to tell me that the Smythe Warehouse in Long Beach were all our possessions had been taken due to a last minute change by the mover had burned to the ground. Everything had been incinerated. They said it was one of the hottest and most devastating fires they had ever seen. We had a house, but nothing whatsoever to go into it! I was particularly distressed at the loss of all our family heirlooms and antiques, our furniture (much of which I had hand made myself at the Wright-Patterson wood shop), photo albums, memorabilia and collections, all my prized musical instruments, the many telescopes I had hand made going back to the early 1950s, and of course, my extensive personal library.
When Aden Meinel and OSC heard about the disaster, Aden offered to help if he could. My friend, John Lytle, spearheaded a drive to replace all my OSC course notes and class materials. He, John Thunen, John Parsons, Bob Hoffman and others provided all their class notes and laboratory reports for copying by the Center. Aden approved the Xeroxing charges (said they made a sizable dent in his October 1968 planned copying charge allocations!) and I got the boxes (over 50 pounds worth!!) in a few weeks. I remember thinking how nice it was of John Lytle to help out so much and for Aden to approve the charges. I also remember what great notes John Parsons and Bob Hoffman took — even better than mine.
Just as I had spent June through August working 16 hours and more a day to complete my thesis in record time, I now worked that much and more at my new job and in preparing all the insurance forms and paperwork for my claim. Replacing what we could of our loss was also a staggering chore. It was May of 1969 before I was able to take a breather. That May 1968 to May 1969 time period was the most intense of my life.
I've always greatly cherished the honor of being the Optical Sciences Center, now the College of Optical Sciences, first graduate and I always will. The people there then and now are among the best in the world at what they do. They are also wonderful giving, multi-talented individuals on a personal level and I will never forget them.