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.
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