JPL Director, 1982 - 1990
Lew Allen, Jr., General, United States Air Force (retired) became JPL’s sixth director in October 1982. Allen was born December 30, 1925, in Miami, and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1943. He became a pilot in the Army Air Forces and moved to the U.S. Air Force upon its creation in 1948.
Allen completed a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1954 at the University of Illinois while still an Air Force officer and was then assigned to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He became a specialist in the effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions, which can damage electronics on the ground and on spacecraft.
After leaving Los Alamos in December 1961, he served in a number of scientific posts within the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. In 1968, he became deputy director of space systems for the Defense Department, and in June 1969, director. In 1971, he moved to Los Angeles Air Force Base as director of special projects and deputy commander of the Space and Missile Systems Organization.
In 1973, Allen became director of the National Security Agency; five years later, he was appointed commander of the Air Force Systems Command. After a short tenure there, he was appointed vice chief of staff of the Air Force, and in July 1978 became chief of staff.
Allen retired from the Air Force in June 1982. His tours at the Pentagon had brought him into frequent contact with former Caltech president Harold Brown, as well as Brown’s successor as Caltech president, Marvin L. Goldberger. His experience with space systems, the need to embrace defense work to sustain JPL’s technological capabilities, and his familiarity with the existing Caltech leadership made him an obvious choice to succeed Bruce Murray. Allen’s appointment as JPL director took effect that October. He was the first JPL director with no prior affiliation to either JPL or Caltech.
During Allen’s eight years as director, NASA’s planetary science budget reached its nadir and then began to rebound. JPL’s defense-related work hit a post-World War II peak.In the mid 80s, JPL began turning defense business away as it reached the limits of its infrastructure.. However, the lab’s efforts in Earth science continued to grow steadily. Allen was also a new technology enthusiast, championing microelectronics and a number of other small, but eventually important, technology projects at JPL. These included planetary surface robotics and technologies for study of extrasolar planets.
Allen retired from JPL at the end of 1990, and returned to the Washington, D.C. area.