Pete Rustan once devised a way to keep Air Force planes from being damaged by lightning. He led a project to build a spacecraft that performed important scientific experiments on the moon. He earned a PhD while serving as an Air Force intelligence officer. He became a designer of spy satellites.

All of those achievements came after he made a daring escape from Cuba to come to the United States.

Col. Rustan retired from the Air Force in 1997 but went back to work after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at a federal agency so secretive that its budget, projects and accomplishments are classified information. His job was to lead research efforts in satellite reconnaissance for the military and CIA.

He might have been unknown to the general public, but Pedro L. “Pete” Rustan was something of a legend in the tight-lipped world of aerial intelligence and engineering. No one who worked with him is at liberty to say exactly what he did for a living.

Yet this much is true: When Col. Rustan retired last August from the little-known National Reconnaissance Office, the Navy SEAL unit responsible for killing Osama bin Laden presented him with an American flag that flew at its forward operating base in Afghanistan.

Pedro L. "Pete" Rustan escaped Cuba at age 20, became an Air Force colonel, earned a PhD in electrical engineering and directed research on spy satellites for the secretive federal agency the National Reconnaissance Office. (Courtesy of National Reconnaissance Office)

On June 28, Col. Rustan died at his home in Woodbridge. He was 65 and had prostate cancer, said his wife, Alexandra Cary Rustan.

Any single element of Col. Rustan’s life — political escapee, scientist, military officer, satellite designer — sounds like the stuff of fiction, but he embodied them all.

“This guy was intense,” said Daniel S. Goldin, a former NASA administrator who knew Col. Rustan for 20 years.

When Goldin took charge of NASA in 1992, one of his goals was to build spacecraft that could be deployed quickly and could produce important scientific results at relatively little cost. His slogan was “faster, better, cheaper.”

Early in Goldin’s tenure, then-Maj. Rustan stepped up to help him meet his goal.

“I met this brash, young Air Force major who made promises beyond belief,” Goldin said in an interview. “I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sure enough, he delivered.”

Col. Rustan managed a joint NASA-Defense Department project to build a 1,000-pound experimental spacecraft to go to the moon. The project, known as Clem­entine, took just 22 months from concept to launchpad.

“Each time I went back,” Goldin said, “I gained more respect for him. He always seemed to take on things that were impossible.”

Clementine went into space Jan. 25, 1994, and sent back 1.8 million images of the moon. It measured reflected light and radiation, created a topologic map of the lunar surface and discovered evidence of frozen water in craters at the moon’s south pole.

‘This is rocket science’

After Clementine, Col. Rustan went to work at the National Reconnaissance Office, which was created in 1961. Its existence was not officially made public until more than 30 years later.

All we know of Col. Rustan’s work at the NRO is that he helped design and manage spy satellites.

“This is rocket science,” Charlie Allen, a 47-year CIA veteran and former assistant director of the agency, said last week. “It has helped give the United States a decisive edge in the Cold War and in post-Cold War conflicts.”

After Col. Rustan retired from the Air Force, he consulted on commercial space ventures and for federal intelligence agencies. He was on an advisory board that recommended changes at the National Security Agency, one of the country’s largest intelligence agencies.

“He was hands down the most valuable member of that board,” Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the NSA and the CIA, said in an interview. “He was creative. He was energetic. He was candid without ever being caustic or unkind.”

After the 9/11 attacks, Col. Rustan left the lucrative private sector and went back to work for the NRO. He eventually led its Advanced Science Directorate and Mission Support Directorate.

In March, Col. Rustan received the Philip J. Klass Lifetime Achievement Award from Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine. The citation said that, in the past decade, he designed two classified spacecraft that have “significantly improved U.S. capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”

Even though his work was confidential, Col. Rustan often traveled to theaters of war and was known to troops on the front lines — including members of SEAL Team 6, the elite commando unit that killed bin Laden on May 2, 2011.

“I’ve talked about great Americans going to the sound of the guns,” said Hayden, a retired Air Force general. “Pete did that. This is the kind of guy the public never hears about but who is so responsible for keeping Americans safe.”

Escape from Cuba

Pedro Luis Rustan was born Dec. 29, 1946, in Guantanamo, Cuba, a small city about 40 miles from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. His father, a labor leader, was jailed as a political prisoner in 1961 by the regime of Fidel Castro.

In August 1967, when Col. Rustan was 20 and a student at the University of Oriente-Santiago in Cuba, he looked up from his desk in the college library one evening to see his father standing before him.

“This night we’re leaving,” said his father, who had escaped from prison through a ruse.

Col. Rustan left his textbook open on the table and fled. With his father, two sisters and a brother-in-law, he climbed inside a railroad boxcar carrying sugar cane.

They jumped from the moving train as it approached the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo and waded waist-deep through a snake-infested swamp before reaching a tall security fence topped with barbed wire. Col. Rustan carried his younger sister on his back over the fence, then scaled a second fence inside the perimeter of the naval base. After they were picked up by U.S. forces, the Rustans asked for political asylum.

The U.S. chief of naval operations happened to be visiting the base at the time, and he took the family to the United States on his plane. (Col. Rustan’s mother stayed behind in Cuba with one of her daughters. They eventually came to the United States.)

The family settled in Chicago, but Col. Rustan spent a year in Rockville, where he tested computer circuit boards. He later studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1970 and a master’s degree in 1971, both in electrical engineering.

After he was drafted into the Air Force in 1971, Pedro Rustan (pronounced roo-STAHN) became known to many as Pete Rustan (rhymes with Dustin). He spoke with a Cuban accent throughout his life but seldom corrected the pronunciation of his name.

As an enlisted man, he did research on the the effects of trace radiation from microwaves. The Air Force sent him to Officer Candidate School and then to graduate school at the University of Florida, from which he received a doctorate in electrical engineering in 1979. He published more than 60 scientific papers during his career.

Studying lightning strikes

His PhD research focused on the effect of lightning strikes on aircraft — a recurring problem that sometimes caused Air Force planes to crash. While collecting information on electrical and magnetic fields, Col. Rustan rode in 53 airplanes that were struck by lightning.

In the early 1980s, the Air Force adopted Col. Rustan’s ideas for protecting aircraft from lightning with the installation of special strips that deflected electrical current. Since then, not a single plane has crashed after a lightning strike.

After his military career, Col. Rustan practically adopted a Honduran mountain village called Concepcion de Maria, which he visited many times. Working with his church, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Lake Ridge, he and his wife helped buy 200 pairs of shoes for village schoolchildren. When they couldn’t find anyone to deliver the shoes, Alexandra Rustan recalled, “my husband said, ‘Well, I’ll go.’ So that began the mission.”

He supervised projects to bring running water to the village, to improve schools and to help local people find jobs in the tilapia fishing industry.

“In Peter’s eyes,” Alexandra Rustan said, “that was his greatest accomplishment.”

In addition to his wife of 33 years, of Woodbridge, survivors include two children, Peter Rustan of Bealeton in Fauquier County and Amy Rustan of Washington; and three sisters.

“As a refugee who escaped Cuba, Pete was driven by a desire to help the country,” said Goldin, who left NASA in 2001 but continued to collaborate on top-secret projects with Col. Rustan until shortly before his death.

“I can’t tell you what it is,” Goldin added, “but I can tell you it was splendid work.”