Former Defense Official Robert S. Cooper, 75

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Robert S. Cooper, 75, former assistant secretary of defense and director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency during the Reagan administration's Star Wars initiative, died of prostate cancer July 2 at his home in Easton, Md.

Dr. Cooper led DARPA from 1981 to 1985, testifying repeatedly before Congress on such matters as the Stealth bomber and supercomputers. His job put him in the middle of some of the most contentious political battles of the period, particularly the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, a ground- and space-based plan to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.

While politicians and military officials argued about whether a missile defense shield was realistic and whether offensive weapons in space violated international treaties, Dr. Cooper walked a fine line. The Pentagon's director of space-weapons research spun out complex details of how such a defense system would work, but Dr. Cooper testified that no design yet existed for individual directed-energy weapons, such as lasers, or a network of such weapons in orbit around the Earth.

"We are talking about technology that is not mature," Dr. Cooper said. Critics of Star Wars, he said, were focusing on something that "may happen in the future" and were failing to pay attention to the increasing number of military support systems that the Soviet Union and the United States planned to launch in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those who wanted to preserve space as a sanctuary from the Cold War were being "unrealistic and not helpful" in the current debate, he told The Washington Post in 1985.

He also told Congress, in an open hearing, about a potential military mission planned for the space shuttle, in which the shuttle would carry advanced radar, infrared and ocean surveillance satellites, some of which could detect nuclear explosions and test new technologies for tracking missiles and other objects in space.

When The Post published an article about it months later, then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger accused the newspaper of "the height of journalistic irresponsibility" and said it might have given "aid and comfort to the enemy" by publishing a report about the space shuttle's mission.

The "Teal Ruby experiment," a space-based project to evaluate infrared surveillance for the detection of aircraft targets against the Earth's clutter background, was never launched. Dr. Cooper later called it "a disaster" for its cost overruns and missed deadlines.

One of his sons described him as "an engineer's engineer" who was more interested in solutions than in toeing a political line. Dr. Cooper called the DARPA job "the best R&D position in the world."

His willingness to speak in forthright terms about government projects continued after he left the federal government. Dr. Cooper criticized the investigation of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, saying: "They're running it like a lawyer would run it. They're looking for a smoking gun." He also objected to a Federal Aviation Administration contract with IBM to build a new air traffic control system.

"They had a key to the U.S. mint," he said. "The cost of the program was going up at the same rate as expenditures, and no progress was being made. It was just a way of funneling money through IBM Federal Systems and raking off whatever the percentage was."

After leaving government work, Dr. Cooper founded and ran Atlantic Aerospace Electronics Corp., which was bought by Titan Corp. in 1999. He continued as its president and director until his 2005 retirement. He was also a board member of Trimble Navigation Ltd. in Sunnyvale, Calif., and BAE Systems of Rockville.

Dr. Cooper was born in Kansas City, Mo., and grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa and then served two years in the Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He received a master's degree in electrical engineering from Ohio State University in 1958 and a doctorate in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1963.

He taught at MIT for nine years and then joined the Defense Department. In 1975, he became director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, a position he held until 1979, when he left to start his company.

Dr. Cooper enjoyed renovating Capitol Hill townhouses, skippering sailboats, piloting small aircraft, skiing and playing tennis, as well as other outdoor sports.

His marriage to Margaret S. Cooper ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Benita Cooper of Easton; two sons from his first marriage, Jonathan Cooper of Ashburn and James Cooper of Lexington, Mass.; a sister; and five grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company