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Robert Tolson

B.S. Aeronautical Engineering & Engineering Mechanics, Virginia Tech, 1958
M.S., Physics, Virginia Tech, 1968
Ph.D., Engineering Mechanics, Virginia Tech, 1990

The first Sputnik was launched during Robert Tolson’s senior year as an aeronautical engineer at Virginia Tech. While listening to the Sputnik beeps on the radio, Tolson and his classmates spent that night trying to figure out how a satellite could even stay in orbit. They could not quite get it, but a couple of them decided then that they wanted to work on this new frontier.

Tolson started work at NASA Langley immediately after his graduation in 1958, and he focused on guidance, navigation and trajectory analyses needed to insure that robotic a d human missions could get to the moon and back. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Tolson was a principal or co-principal investigator on several space missions including the Lunar Orbiter Selenodesy Experiment to map the gravity field of the moon. After successful human lunar landings, Tolson turned to Mars in 1969, serving as navigation manager for Viking.  Viking had two successful landings in 1976, and later he served on the Viking Radio Science Team that determined Mars’ atmospheric, gravitational, and physical properties. Similarly, he worked on the Pioneer Venus Aeronomy experiment and three Venus Magellan experiments that explored the upper atmosphere of Venus.

Tolson’s career at NASA also included heading the planetary physics branch from 1973 until 1976, and the atmospheric science branch from 1976 until 1982. He spent the next two years as the chief scientist, followed by a six-year stint as the head of the interdisciplinary research office. When he served as the chief scientist, Tolson was the first person to hold the position in an official capacity. When he relinquished this position, Jerry South, also a Virginia Tech aerospace engineering alumnus and member of the Academy of Engineering Excellence, succeeded him.

When he retired from NASA in 1990, he concurrently earned his Ph.D., and joined the George Washington University faculty for the next 13 years. He spent 2004 as the University of Maryland Liaison Professor at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), a seven -member consortium conducting advanced aerospace and atmospheric research. Today he is the North Carolina State University Langley Distinguished Professor at the NIA.

Select Awards and Recognition
NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement
NASA Exceptional Service Medal, 1977