B.S., Aerospace Engineering, 1960
M.S., Aerospace Engineering, 1962
Ph.D., Aerospace Engineering, 1966
Peter Kurzhals has more than 50 years of experience in human spaceflight ranging in time from the creation of NASA to the early manned missions culminating in the Apollo program and the moon landings, followed by the Space Shuttles, the International Space Station, and the new private space commercialization initiatives.
Born in Berlin in 1937, Kurzhals moved with his family to Hampton, Virginia after World War II when his mother remarried an American sergeant. He started college in 1955 at Virginia Tech, and worked every other academic quarter to pay for his school expenses. He found that engineering offered the best opportunities and opted for aeronautics. He landed a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor of NASA, in Langley, Virginia and was at NACA when Sputnik was launched in 1957.
While Kurzhals earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Virginia Tech, he developed and patented a double-gimbaled Control Moment Gyro (CMG) system to control the altitude of spacecraft with significant cost savings. After a $50 million advance from NASA headquarters to build a prototype system, Kurzhals and his team traveled to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), in Huntsville, Ala., to sell the system to flight center management. At the presentation, only one voice expressed support: Wernher von Braun. The late Von Braun was the ex-German rocket scientist who, following World War II, repatriated to America and helped lay the foundation for the U.S. space program and NASA itself. Von Braun became his mentor, and Peter worked with him for a number of years.
In 1969, Kurzhals was transferred to NASA headquarters as chief of the guidance and control branch, and soon was promoted to director of the electronics division. Here, he managed the successful test of the Space Shuttle Digital Fly By Wire system on an F-8 experimental aircraft, the first flight of an all fly-by-wire system in the world. The technology was later adopted by virtually all commercial and military aircraft, as well as by space craft such as the Space Shuttle. He also initiated NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Program and the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Program, which developed the precursors to today’s planetary rovers.
From 1979 to 1980, Kurzhals directed NASA’s Space Division, and from 1981 to 1984, he was assistant director of mission operations at Goddard Space Flight Center. In 1984, Kurzhals went private, first at Booz Allen and then joining McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. in 1985. When Boeing purchased McDonnell Douglas in 1995, Kurzhals was named director of Boeing’s product support for the International Space Station. By his retirement in 2011, Kurzhals served as director of systems and software for the Boeing’s space exploration division.
Select Awards and Recognition
Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Orange County (California) Engineer of the Year