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DARPA is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for DoD, and pursues research and technology where risk and payoff are both very high and in which success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions.

According to Tether’s predecessor, the job of managing the $2 billion-a-year agency isn’t for everyone. In the 2000 Prune Book, a guide to top jobs in the federal government, former DARPA boss Frank Fernandez comments that the breadth of the agency’s work would make any incoming director feel “like a post-doc, learning from scratch,” even with a strong technical background and experience in defense-related research and development.

Add to that a directive from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the new director must make DARPA an entrepreneurial hotbed that will give the U.S. military the tools it will need to maintain the nation’s access to space and to protect satellites in orbit from attack—and the job might seem downright intimidating.

But with years of experience in government and business, Tether has proved to be more than equal to the challenge.

Tether served four years as DoD’s director of national intelligence (1978-1982) and was director of DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office from 1982 to 1986. In that role, he managed projects to develop new surveillance techniques; satellite technology such as power sources, optics, and radio transmitters; stealth aircraft; and tools for antisubmarine warfare. Tether first went to Washington in 1978 from Systems Control Inc., a consulting firm he’d helped found in 1969. Systems Control, where Tether was in charge of military projects, had developed resource-allocation and control systems for commercial and military clients.

He left Washington in 1986 to become vice president of technology and advanced development for Ford Aerospace Corp. and a vice president for Ford Motor Co., where he led the Car of the Year 2000 committee, conceiving new automotive technologies based upon those developed by DoD. In 1992, he joined Science Applications International Corp. to run its commercial product sector and two years later became chief executive officer of Dynamics Technology Inc., a small defense contractor in need of stabilization following the end of the Cold War.

In 1996 he struck out on his own, founding The Sequoia Group, which managed programs and developed strategies for government and industry. It was there that the Bush transition team found him when they needed a new boss for DARPA.

Rensselaer to the Rescue

Tether’s rise to national prominence almost was cut short when he ran out of money as an undergraduate at Stanford. He credits Rensselaer for taking a chance on admitting him as a transfer student who initially did not have the funds to pay tuition.

A native of Middletown, N.Y., Tether earned an associate’s degree at Orange County Community College, then transferred to Stanford University, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, to study applied mathematics. By mid-year, however, he was out of money and headed homeward to find a school within New York state where he could complete his degree, since attending an in-state school would qualify him for state loans.

Classmates from Orange County had transferred to Rensselaer and gave it good reviews, so he drove to Troy to look the campus over and while there stopped by the admissions office.

Some of the admissions staff were incredulous at a walk-in transfer applicant from Stanford, he says, but they went out of their way to help him. In less than two weeks, he was in.

Soon after, he found himself in the registration line, signing up for classes and dreading the last stop: the bursar’s table. His state loans hadn’t come through yet. He had no way to pay.

Luckily, he recognized among the registration staff one of the helpful admissions officers. When he explained his situation, the man—whose name he wishes he could remember—conferred with other officials and arranged to let him attend on credit until his loans cleared.

Without that combination of kindness and coincidence, Tether says, “I don’t know where I’d be today.”

Where Tether is today, 40 years later, is in a position to make the nation more secure and, perhaps, to change the world.

Future Defense
Between its creation in 1958, months after the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite, and 1990, DARPA helped provide the armed forces with high-performance materials and materials-forming techniques used in the SR-71 spy plane, the F-15 and F-16 fighters and the Titan rocket, satellite navigation systems, numerous radar and missile systems, helicopters without tail rotors, body armor, head-mounted displays, uncooled infrared sensors useful in night-vision systems, and satellites for monitoring nuclear tests. It also managed a project that developed antenna booms for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Since 1990 it has added to the national arsenal a new kind of sonar, a submarine periscope that doesn’t penetrate the ship’s hull, a remote-controlled undersea vehicle, new materials for aircraft and for vehicle armor, a “Soldier 911” emergency radio, and integrated circuitry for microwave systems used in missiles and artillery—circuitry also used in cordless telephones and in systems that warn school bus drivers when children are present in blind areas around their vehicles.

DARPA research and development has provided U.S. troops in Afghanistan with a pen-size water purification kit, a hand-held device that can translate spoken phrases into local languages such as Pashto and Urdu, small ground robots, and improved computer networks. The agency’s work yielded Leaders, a consequence management program, a commercial version of which was watching for signs of biological attack in New York state within 24 hours of the Sept. 11 attacks. Robots from DARPA’s Tactical Mobile Robotics program were used in the search and rescue mission at the World Trade Center site. DARPA personnel advised the team responsible for decontaminating buildings in Washington, D.C., after the anthrax attacks, and the agency’s Immune Building program provided the technique used to clean up the Hart Senate Office Building.

In many cases, DARPA funds research on a technology for years, then waits a decade or longer to see it in use, Tether says. For instance, the Global Hawk remote-operated, high-altitude reconnaissance plane, which can spend a day or more at a stretch aloft to bring commanders on the ground a clear view of the terrain and action around them, resulted from a project begun around 1978. Its close-in cousin, the Predator, grew out of the Teal Amber program, launched early in Tether’s first stint with DARPA.

Fortunately, DARPA usually works far in advance of current defense needs.

“We never wait for [military commanders] to tell us what they need,” Tether says. “We basically develop technology capabilities based on a more long-range perspective of what threats could exist and what could happen if we had the technology.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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