Alexander H. Flax

Last updated
Alexander H. Flax
Alexander H. Flax.jpg
3rd Director of the National Reconnaissance Office
In office
October 1, 1965 March 17, 1969
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded by Brockway McMillan
Succeeded by John L. McLucas
Personal details
Born(1921-01-18)January 18, 1921
Brooklyn, New York, US
DiedJune 30, 2014(2014-06-30) (aged 93)
Potomac, Maryland, US
Spouse(s)Ida Leane
Alma mater New York University
University at Buffalo
Occupationaeronautical engineer, government official

Alexander Henry Flax (January 18, 1921 June 30, 2014) was the Chief Scientist of the US Air Force (USAF) from 1959 to 1961, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development from 1963 to 1969, and the third Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from 1965 to 1969. He was the director at a time when the second generation of imaging systems became operational and began to play a major role in United States intelligence during the Cold War. He oversaw major growth in NRO funding and personnel, the development of signals intelligence collectors from space, and the development of electro-optical imaging for US reconnaissance satellites.


Early life

Alexander Henry Flax was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 18, 1921, [1] the son of David Flax, a businessman, [2] and Etta Flax. [3] He had a sister, Shirley. [1] He was interested in science from an early age, reading magazines like Popular Mechanics . He had a particular interest in aviation, and built model aircraft from balsa wood. [4] He entered New York University in 1937, where he studied aeronautical engineering, and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1940. [3]

World War II

Flax participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at New York University, but did not receive a commission on graduation. World War II had already begun, and the aircraft industry needed aeronautical engineers, which was therefore a reserved occupation. [5] Instead, he joined the Curtiss-Wright Corporation after graduation. Within two years he became head of its flutter and vibration group, working on structural and dynamics issues, and on methods for design analysis and testing. [6] [7]

This field was transformed by the advent of the electronic strain gauge, which provided dynamic readouts of stresses and strains that previously had been the subject of theoretical analysis or painstaking laboratory experimentation. Flax was at the forefront of applying the new technology to the aircraft under development at Curtiss-Wright, such as the O-52 Owl observation aircraft, P-40 Warhawk fighter, C-46 Commando transport, and SB2C Helldiver dive bomber. [6] [7]

In 1944, Flax accepted an offer to join the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation as its head of aerodynamics, structures, and weights—a position normally occupied in a larger company by a senior engineer. [6] Helicopter technology was still in its infancy at the time, and Flax had to develop the means to design and test this new type of aircraft. He was part of a small team of engineers who developed the Piasecki HRP Rescuer, the first true twin-rotor helicopter. [6] [7]


Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory

After the war ended, Flax was offered a position as assistant head of the Aeromechanics Department at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in Buffalo, New York. [8] Here, he continued his work on helicopters, particularly the study of blade dynamics and stability. Along with his associate Harold Hirsch, he developed and tested a fiberglass composite material rotor blade. He also became involved in the development of supersonic ramjet propulsion in collaboration with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. [6] [9] He developed the perforated-wall wind tunnel for testing transonic flows, making use of electronic gauges to study this phenomena. He was also one of the inventors of the wave superheater, which can generate airflows at temperatures hitherto attained only in rocket exhausts. [6] [10]

Flax became head of the Aeromechanics Department in 1949, and Assistant Director of the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in 1955. He also served as its Vice President and Technical Director from 1961 to 1963. [8] As such, he exercised managerial and technical guidance over all the work of the laboratory. Not all of this was related to aeronautics; projects included research into neural networks; the design of automobile safety features such as seat belts and crumple zones; pioneering work; and development of weather radar. [11] In 1951, he married Ida Leane, [8] who had served as an Army cryptanalyst during World War II, and worked at Piasecki as a mathematician. They had one child, a daughter called Laurel. [12]

In addition, Flax served on various boards and commissions, including the National Commission on Aerodynamics from 1952 to 1954, its subcommittee on high-speed aerodynamics from 1954 to 1958, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Advisory Commission on aircraft aerodynamics from 1958 to 1962, [13] and earned a PhD in physics from the University of Buffalo in 1958, writing his thesis on "Approximate methods for the calculation of the scattering of particles by atoms and nuclei". [14]

United States Air Force

Flax served as the Chief Scientist of the US Air Force (USAF) from 1959 to 1961, and the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development from 1963 to 1969. [8] As assistant secretary, he promoted advanced aircraft engine development through the Lightweight Engine Gas Generator Program and Advanced Turbine Engine Gas Generator Program, which developed engines that eventually went into the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, and a new generation of high-bypass engines for large, long-range transport aircraft. Based on his experience with fiberglass helicopter blades, he championed the use of composite materials. He also supported the development of precision-guided weapons and their targeting systems and sensors. [15]

Space systems also fell within Flax's area of responsibility, and he oversaw the deployment of the Missile Defense Alarm System (MiDAS) space-based infrared sensor system for ballistic missile launch detection, the development of the Titan III family of launch vehicles, and the evolution of the early defense communications satellite systems including the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS), TACSATCOM, and the Global Positioning System. [15]

Flax concurrently served as the third director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from October 1, 1965, until March 17, 1969. In this role he oversaw major growth in NRO funding and personnel, and the production of signals intelligence collectors from space and promoted the development of real-time electro-optical imaging systems for reconnaissance satellites. He canceled short-lived low Earth orbit satellites in favor of longer-lived, more cost-effective ones in higher orbits with modules for returning film to Earth like the KH-8 Gambit 3 and KH-9 Hexagon. In the process, the NRO's signal intelligence share of the National Reconnaissance Program budget rose from 5 to 30 percent. [13] [16]

Later life

In March 1969, Flax joined the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), initially as its vice president of research, becoming its president later that year. The IDA helped the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff develop analytical and computer models to evaluate conventional and nuclear forces, through such projects as the Air Combat Evaluation (ACEVAL) and the Air Intercept Missile Evaluation (AIMVAL) respectively. It also assisted in coordinating and evaluating technology-based Department of Defense programs like those involved with infrared sensors, new materials, and novel propulsion technologies. He retired in 1983. [15]

Flax was a consultant to the Defense Science Board from 1974 to 1987, and President's Intelligence Advisory Board from 1982 to 1987. He was a member of the United States Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency advisory board, and the chairman of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) advisory committee. He was also a member of the National Research Council Panel on the Impact of National Security Controls on International Technology Transfer from 1985 to 1987, Committee on a Commercially Developed Space Facility from 1988 to 1989, and Committee on NASA Scientific and Technological Program Reviews from 1981 to 1993. [17]

Over the years Flax received many awards and accolades, including the Department of the Air Force Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service in 1961 and 1969, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1968, the Defense Intelligence Agency Exceptional Civilian Service Medal in 1974, and the Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 1983. [13] He also received the Theodore von Karman award from the NATO Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development, the Lawrence Sperry Award from American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Clifford Furnas Award from the State University of New York at Buffalo and the National Geographic Society's General Thomas D. White USAF Space Trophy. [1]

Flax died on June 30, 2014. [1]


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Alexander H. Flax Obituary". The Washington Post. September 12, 2014. Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  2. Burge 1992, p. 3.
  3. 1 2 Dowell 2019, p. 107.
  4. Burge 1992, pp. 3–4.
  5. Flax, Alexander H. (July 29, 1991). "Oral History interview transcript with Alexander Flax" (Interview). Interviewed by Finn Aserud. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library and Archives. Retrieved April 25, 2020.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 National Academy of Engineering 1993, pp. 1–2.
  7. 1 2 3 Burge 1992, pp. 10–13.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Burge 1992, p. vii.
  9. Burge 1992, pp. 13–16.
  10. Burge 1992, pp. 17–24.
  11. National Academy of Engineering 1993, pp. 2–3.
  12. Dowell 2019, p. 109.
  13. 1 2 3 Laurie & Suk 2019, p. 36.
  14. "Approximate methods for the calculation of the scattering of particles by atoms and nuclei". University of Buffalo. 1958. Retrieved April 26, 2020.
  15. 1 2 3 National Academy of Engineering 1993, p. 4.
  16. Widelake & Homer 2014, pp. 1–4.
  17. Dowell 2019, p. 108.

Related Research Articles

National Reconnaissance Office United States intelligence agency in charge of satellite intelligence

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is a member of the United States Intelligence Community and an agency of the United States Department of Defense. NRO is considered, along with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), to be one of the "big five" U.S. intelligence agencies. The NRO is headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, 2 miles (3.2 km) south of the Washington Dulles International Airport.

John M. Fabian American pilot and astronaut

John McCreary Fabian is a former NASA astronaut, Air Force officer, and director who flew two Space Shuttle missions and on the development of the Shuttle's robotic arm. He later led the Air Force's space operations.

Manned Orbiting Laboratory part of the United States Air Forces manned spaceflight program

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was a never-flown part of the United States Air Force's human spaceflight program, a successor to the canceled Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar military reconnaissance space plane project. The project was developed from early United States Air Force (USAF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) concepts of crewed space stations to be used for reconnaissance purposes. MOL evolved into a single-use laboratory, with which crews would be launched on 40-day missions and return to Earth using a Gemini B spacecraft, derived from NASA's Gemini spacecraft.

Boeing Defense, Space & Security (BDS) is a division of The Boeing Company based in Arlington, Virginia. It is responsible for defense and aerospace products and services. It was formerly known as Boeing Integrated Defense Systems (IDS).

The Aerospace Corporation is an American California nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) headquartered in El Segundo, California. The corporation provides technical guidance and advice on all aspects of space missions to military, civil, and commercial customers. As the FFRDC for national-security space, Aerospace works closely with organizations such as the United States Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to provide "objective technical analyses and assessments for space programs that serve the national interest". Although SMC and NRO are the primary customers, Aerospace also performs work for civil agencies as well as international organizations and governments in the national interest.

Christopher Scolese American space agency executive

Dr. Christopher J. Scolese is director of the National Reconnaissance Office. He was appointed the 19th Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (DNRO) on August 1, 2019. Scolese was sworn into office on August 5, 2019.

Scott F. Large American intelligence officer

Scott F. Large is an American intelligence officer and analyst who served as the fifteenth Director of the National Reconnaissance Office from 2007 to 2009. He previously served as the Principal Deputy Director of the National Reconnaissance Office from April to October 2007, and as the Central Intelligence Agency's Associate Deputy Director for Science and Technology.

John T. Sheridan United States Air Force general

Lieutenant General John T. "Tom" Sheridan retired from the US Air Force in August 2011. His last assignment was as Commander, Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles AFB, California; he was succeeded by Ellen M. Pawlikowski in June 2011. He has been VP of the SI's National Security Space program since 16 April 2012 ,.

Aerospace engineering branch of engineering

Aerospace engineering is the primary field of engineering concerned with the development of aircraft and spacecraft. It has two major and overlapping branches: aeronautical engineering and astronautical engineering. Avionics engineering is similar, but deals with the electronics side of aerospace engineering.

222d Command and Control Squadron

The 222d Command and Control Squadron is an Air National Guard command and control squadron located at Rome, New York and Chantilly, Virginia.

Joseph V. Charyk American scientist

Joseph Vincent Charyk was widely credited as the founder of the geosynchronous communications satellite industry. He was born in Canmore, Alberta in a Ukrainian family. Early in his career, Charyk consolidated the Central Intelligence Agency, United States Air Force, and United States Navy space programs into the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). He brought the first United States imagery satellite, CORONA, into operation and demonstrated signals intelligence technology from space. During his tenure, the NRO operated the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and managed development of the A-12.

Betty J. Sapp Director of the National Reconnaissance Office

Betty Jean Sapp is the former Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (DNRO). She served as a United States Air Force Officer and employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. She was the first female Director of the NRO.

David A. Kier was the ninth Deputy Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (DDNRO). He is a 1965 graduate of Washington & Jefferson College.

Susan K. Mashiko United States Air Force general

Susan K. Mashiko is a retired United States Air Force major general who served as the Deputy Director, National Reconnaissance Office, Chantilly, Virginia. Her responsibilities include assisting the director and principal deputy director in managing the strategic and tactical operations of the NRO. Also, as the commander, Air Force Space Command Element, she manages all air force personnel and resources assigned to the NRO and serves as the senior adviser to the DNRO on all military matters. Mashiko is the first Japanese American woman to be promoted to flag rank.

Paul G. Kaminski American scientist

Paul G. Kaminski is a technologist and former U.S. government official, best known for his leading role in the development of stealth aircraft.

Bert R. Bulkin American aeronautica engineer

Bertram Raoul Bulkin was an American aeronautical engineer who participated in the first United States photo-reconnaissance satellite programs and is best known for his role in building the Hubble Space Telescope.

Aerospace Data Facility-East Reconnaissance satellite ground station on the US East Coast

Aerospace Data Facility-East (ADF-E), also known as Area 58 and formerly known as Defense Communications Electronics Evaluation and Testing Activity (DCEETA), is one of three satellite ground stations operated by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in the continental United States. Located within Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the facility is responsible for the command and control of reconnaissance satellites involved in the collection of intelligence information and for the dissemination of that intelligence to other U.S. government agencies.

William G. King Jr. United States Air Force general

William Gregg King Jr. was a brigadier general in the United States Air Force (USAF). After service with the United States Army in World War II, he joined the USAF in 1947. He helped establish the Eastern Test Range at Cape Canaveral, Florida, was project officer for the SM-62 Snark cruise missile, helped initiate the WS-117L military satellite program, worked on the SAMOS reconnaissance satellite, commanded the Air Force Satellite Control Facility, and was director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Project A.

Allen F. Donovan American scientist

Allen F. Donovan was an American aerospace engineer and systems engineer who was involved in the development of the Atlas and Titan rocket families. He served as a consultant to the President's Science Advisory Committee from 1957 until 1978.

John L. Martin Jr. United States Air Force general

John Landrum Martin Jr. was a major general in the United States Air Force. He enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in 1940 and flew combat missions in Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers in the China-Burma-India Theater.