Albert D. “Bud” Wheelon, one of the central figures in the development of the first U.S. spy satellite and later the commercial communications satellite industry, died Friday at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 84.
The family confirmed the death and said the cause was cancer.
Dr. Wheelon became one of California’s most important technological innovators in aerospace, leaving behind a multibillion-dollar enterprise and making key contributions to national security.
Under Dr. Wheelon’s guidance as the first science and technology director of the CIA, the U.S. invented the photo reconnaissance satellite during the early 1960s.
The spacecraft, bearing the code name Corona, gave U.S. military planners their first concrete assessment of the capabilities of the Soviet Union during the tensest days of the nuclear arms race, when some feared that the Soviets had opened a wide superiority over the U.S. in nuclear warheads.
The grainy black-and-white images sent by Corona, dropped into the atmosphere in film canisters that were captured in midflight by aircraft, helped to contain the arms race from ever greater extremes, Dr. Wheelon said decades later when the program was declassified.
After serving at the CIA for four years, Dr. Wheelon moved back to Los Angeles, where he had grown up, and in 1967 took over the nascent satellite business of Hughes Aircraft. Over the next two decades, Hughes would become the dominant manufacturer of communications satellites and a major private employer in California.
At its peak, more than half of the satellites in orbit were built by Hughes at its sprawling factory in El Segundo, which today is owned by Boeing and employs about 5,000 people.
Dr. Wheelon built Hughes’s business in spy satellites, which eventually accounted for half of its sales. And he became convinced that, with other companies attempting to compete, building commercial satellites alone would be a low-profit business. Hughes became a major provider of satellite communications services, which became the biggest profit center of the company. All the major television networks relied on Hughes to transmit their signals across the nation.
Despite his success in business and technology, Dr. Wheelon was ousted from Hughes Aircraft in 1988 after it was purchased by General Motors.
By then, Dr. Wheelon had become chairman of Hughes. He began butting heads with GM when he launched an internal investigation into possible foreign bribes on an air defense contact for Egypt.
GM officials contended that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and wanted Dr. Wheelon to drop the matter because it could damage the automaker’s other business in Egypt. Dr. Wheelon refused to give up the internal probe.
The matter grew more tangled when the Justice Department began investigating allegations that Dr. Wheelon himself was involved in making bribes in South America.
After a five-year investigation, Justice dropped the matter without bringing any charges.
Dr. Wheelon felt he had been wronged by GM, he told the Los Angeles Times in a series of interviews.
As the years went by, he regained his reputation and received awards from the CIA, NASA and professional organizations.
Albert Dewell Wheelon was born Jan. 18, 1929, in Moline, Ill. His father was an aerospace engineer who brought the family to Los Angeles in a Model T in 1936 so that he could work at Douglas Aircraft Co. Eventually, the senior Wheelon helped to pioneer heat shields for early U.S. spacecraft at a time when his son was beginning to make his mark in space technology, said Marcia Wheelon, a younger sister.
Bud Wheelon received a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His field of specialty was electromagnetic scintillation, which involves the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the atmosphere.
After leaving Hughes, he published two major research books on physics, making him among the few business executives who would return to their technical roots after retirement.
His first wife, Nancy Hermanson, died in 1980. Their daughter, Elizabeth, died in 2006.
Survivors include his wife, the former Cicely Evans; a daughter from his first marriage, Cynthia Wheelon; his sister; and a grandson.