An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Greg Zacharias ’67, SM ’74, PhD ’77  helped design the space shuttle’s reentry flight control system as an Air Force lieutenant at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, served as a senior scientist at Bolt Beranek and Newman, and then led Charles River Analytics, a provider of intelligent sys­tems R&D.

But he might be most enthusiastic about his recent two-plus-year appointment as chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force. He advised senior military and civilian lead­ers, identifying and analyz­ing technologies that affect the Air Force’s missionlike hypersonic vehicles, directed-energy weapons, and autonomous systemswhile interacting with the Army, Navy, and other gov­ernment agencies.

“I just loved that job; I was honored to have it,” he says. “It can be quite an exercise moving from a 150-person company to a 650,000-person organiza­tion, but I had a ball roaming around to facilities across the country and working with a truly dedicated technical community serving a military with a deep sense of duty.”

Zacharias says that civilian society in the U.S. might benefit from closer cultural ties with the military

Zacharias first worked with autonomous systems at the Department of Aeronau­tics and Astronautics’ Man Vehicle Laboratory, which has studied human-vehicle interactions for more than 50 years. “Down deep, I’m a flight controls and human factors person,” he says.

“Functions are get­ting more automated, and that’s going to continue,” adds Zacharias. Aircraft, he notes, originally had a “man-in-the-loop” handling all control and subsystem man­agement. As aircraft and sub­systems have advanced, the pilot’s role has become more supervisory. With the advent of increasingly autonomous systems, he anticipates a “man-under-the-loop” model, in which pilots (and others) are advised by artificially intelligent agents that may be more competent and less stressed. “That will prob­ably happen faster than we think,” he says. This and other topics are covered in a new autonomy road map he developed with the Air Force Research Laboratory.

In a talk at his 50th reunion, Zacharias said that civilian society in the U.S. might benefit from closer cultural ties with the military: “They’re central to our health and happiness, and since the draft went away there’s a separation in some sense. But it’s a strong community, one that’s very dedicated to this country, and one that we could all benefit from.”

Retirement is not on Zacharias’s mind. Rather, he’s “in the process of figuring out a next act.”

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