Cuban refugee designed spy satellites for US
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.
Rustan retired from the Air Force in 1997 but went back to work after the terrorist attacks of September 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 Colonel 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 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.
Any single element of 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 Rustan for 20 years.
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