Robert S. Ryan

From Hoops to Hubble, Aerospace Expert Shoots for the Stars

Inducted in 2008

The accomplishments of Robert S. Ryan are many and various, and this occasion is not his first experience with hall of fame membership. In one small North Alabama locale, banners in the Priceville High School gymnasium commemorate two state championships which led to basketball coach Bob Ryan’s 1996 induction into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame. Those thrilling 1951 and 1955 victories give early evidence of Ryan’s capacity to inspire and lead.

As a young man, Ryan prepared to teach secondary-school science by pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of North Alabama, where he played on the basketball team. He was already a military veteran, having served in the Air Force in World War II. In 1955, he earned a master’s degree from Peabody College for Teachers. A life change was in store, however, and 1956 began Ryan’s career in aerospace engineering.

Initially with the U.S. Army Missile Command, he joined NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center upon its founding in 1958. His significant contributions to space exploration started immediately (though it was 1964 when he obtained fresh credentials, a master’s degree in engineering mechanics from The University of Alabama). Every MSFC undertaking owes something of its success to Ryan. He monitored key developments shaping the NASA colossi Saturn, Apollo, Skylab, Spacelab, Space Shuttle, Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Telescope, and International Space Station projects.

When he retired from NASA in 1996, Ryan was the deputy director of the Structures and Dynamics Laboratory. His responsibilities encompassed structural design, analysis, and testing; control systems; fluid dynamics; thermal engineering; and life support for all MSFC projects. In 40 busy years at NASA, Ryan was recognized with 10 different commendations, many presented multiple times. Perhaps most meaningfully to Ryan, he was NASA’s Flight Honoree for the Shuttle’s 100th flight (October 2000).

This outstanding engineer also has the admiration of peers beyond NASA. The University of Alabama in 1988 named him a 150th Anniversary Distinguished Engineering Fellow, while UNA dubbed him alumnus of the year in 1996. Furthermore, AIAA bestowed both regional and international distinctions upon Ryan, most notably its inaugural Chrichlow Trust Prize, a $100,000 quadrennial award for achievement related to aerospace materials or structures.

Ryan is a prolific author of technical treatises read throughout the industry. His 110 publications to date (more papers are forthcoming at NASA) include numerous curricula written as a technical training coordinator for NASA, one of his two post-retirement roles there; the other role is engineering consultant, a relationship he also maintains with leading private companies. At 82, he remains committed to advancing our profession through consulting, teaching, and mentoring less-experienced engineers.

Active in local government and public education for many years, Ryan is also a church deacon and Sunday school teacher of over 50 years’ experience. He is a recipient of the City of Madison Citizenship Award. As certainly as he is a five-star engineer, Ryan is a selfless neighbor and a deserving new member of AEHOF.

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