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Tether Leaving DARPA: Rustan New Guy?

Tony Tether, head of DARPA since 2001, is leaving the agency and there is much speculation that one of the space industry's most respected thinkers, and greatest innovators, is coming to head the agency.

Tether, without a doubt one of the most respected people to lead the Pentagon's fount of good ideas and nifty new technologies, may be replaced by the NRO's Pedro "Pete" Rustan, but there is no official word yet. Jan Walker, DARPA's longtime spokeswoman, said this morning there is no official statement yet on a new director.

An intelligence community source said Rustan had received many calls when the news about Tether's departure broke but that there were no solid indications the passionate director of ground systems planned to leave the NRO any time soon. One of the reasons that Rustan's name is being bandied about with such abandon is that he recently wrote a letter to Aviation Week urging that DARPA expand its energetic research and development efforts "beyond defense."

Here is Rustan's letter. It was published in the Jan. 12 edition of AvWeek:

Refocus Darpa Beyond Defense

For more than 50 years, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (Darpa) innovations have enhanced the Defense Dept., the intelligence community and commercial industry. Important contributions include developing the Saturn V rocket, the first Corona photo-reconnaissance satellite, stealth technologies, many unmanned aerial vehicles and ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

By avoiding bureaucratic infrastructure and nurturing program managers with fresh ideas, Darpa is one of the few agencies in the U.S. government that continues to be as relevant today as it was at its inception. Expanding this entrepreneurial and innovative agency's role beyond traditional defense-related industries will help you rebuild the U.S. economy and create jobs by fostering development of technologies such as:

*Nanotechnology. The U.S. has been the world's leader in nanotechnology research but to benefit from this investment, we must build sustainable and profitable manufacturing centers based on nano-materials, switches and electronic components. Successfully integrating nanotechnologies into our manufacturing processes will significantly reduce the weight and increase the strength of materials used for aircraft, rockets and terrestrial vehicles. Darpa must work with the leading U.S. nanotechnology companies to create domestic nanotechnology manufacturing centers.

*Biotechnology. The human brain is the perfect machine. It performs command, control and communication functions better than any device ever invented. The biomaterials, bioelectronics and biometrics industries are advancing rapidly. If we can emulate the way the brain makes decisions, then we can shorten our decision-making cycles and outperform our adversaries in a manner unlike any other in history. Darpa should expand efforts in cognitive sciences and "smart" machines.

*Information/Communication Technology. The ICT revolution that enabled globalization of the world economy continues to expand exponentially. Darpa funded the initial research, but now large manufacturing centers for fiber-optic cables, routers, switches and memory devices operate overseas. Darpa can play a key role in developing and advocating for economic incentives of U.S.-based manufacturing centers of next-generation technologies.

Refocusing Darpa to address both military and commercial areas cannot be successful without paying equal attention to the development of human capital. Darpa must work with the National Science Foundation and Commerce Dept. to cultivate an environment that encourages Americans to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Additionally, Darpa must attract talent from overseas. About 50% of the Standard & Poor's top 500 companies are led by foreign-born entrepreneurs who came to school in the U.S. and then became citizens. This major source of imported human capital will be lost unless we adopt immigration policies that incentivize the best minds from around the world to become a part of our great nation. Traditionally, 60% of U.S. Ph.D. students in science and engineering have been from other countries. The majority of these students would like to stay after earning their degrees. Darpa should work with the Homeland Security and State Depts. to help them remain in the U.S.

A time with great challenges is also a time with great opportunities. We can capitalize on these opportunities by investing in innovative technologies and developing the U.S. science and technology base. Expanding Darpa's role will cultivate our nation's entrepreneurial spirit and enable us to continue to lead the global economy.


Pedro L. Rustan

Rustan, a two-time Aviation Week Laureate in space, is director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office's Ground Enterprise Directorate. His views are personal and do not represent the NRO.

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