Robert K. Roney

Robert K. Roney
Newton, IA, USA
Death date


Childhood, Undergraduate Education, and Military Service

Robert Kenneth Roney was born on a farm in Newton, Iowa, USA, the youngest of four children. His parents moved the family to another farm in Looney, Missouri in 1929, where he spent the rest of his childhood and became intimately familiar with horse-powered agricultural technologies related to plowing, sowing, and harvesting. He attended the University of Missouri, where he was a member of the Three Squares Cooperative House, an officer of Tau Beta Pi, and chair of the student branch of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE). After receiving his B.S. in electrical engineering in 1944, Roney served in World War II on the battleship U.S.S. Washington, helping operate its radar systems during the battle of Okinawa.

Post-graduate education, Marriage, and Hughes Aircraft

After the war, Roney used the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill) to study at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). There he received his Master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1947, followed by his Ph.D. in Physics in 1950, having researched and written his dissertation on The Influence of Metal Grain Structure on the Attenuation of an Ultrasonic Acoustic Wave. After graduation, Roney joined the recently established Guided Missile division at Hughes Aircraft Company as part of the Aerospace Group that Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge had initiated two years earlier. Within a year Roney met and engaged Alice Lorraine Mann of the Radar Reports group in Hughes's Radar Division. They were married in the fall of 1951 and lived at 1105 Georgina Avenue in Santa Monica, California, for 53 years, raising a son and daughter.

Air-to-Air Missiles at Hughes Aircraft

During the 1950s, Roney contributed to the innovation of what became the U.S. Air Force's first air-to-air guided missiles. Hughes had been the prime contractor for USAF air-to-air missiles since World War II. The platforms, missions, fuels, warheads, and target sensors all changed during the evolution of air tactics for defending U.S. bombers or attacking Soviet Union bombers. Hughes researched and developed variants that used semi-active radar homing (SARH) in conjunction with the ground radar systems that the Aerospace Group also developed; its staff also created a series of passive infrared sensors beginning in 1951. Hughes began manufacturing the SARH-based GAR-1 (Guided Air Rocket, renamed AIM-4F) of its Falcon series in 1952 and the USAF approved it for operation three years later. It began service on F-89H Scorpion subsonic interceptors in 1956 at nearly the same time that the GAR-2 infrared missiles were first added to F-102 Delta Dagger supersonic interceptors. Hughes manufactured 50,000 of the missiles by the end of the program in 1962.

Systems Analysis and Geosynchronous Satellites

He advanced to head of the Systems Analysis and Aerodynamics department in 1955 before leading the Systems Analysis Laboratory. In that position he hired Harold Rosen to begin Hughes's research into communications satellites. Rosen in turn hired Thomas Hudspeth and Donald Williams to create a high-altitude, geosynchronous design when other companies and government agencies believed that medium-altitude, orbiting satellites were most practical. Roney advocated and defended their approach, which resulted in a contract from National Air and Space Administration (NASA) in 1961 and the first true geostationary communication satellite, Syncom 3, in 1964. The geosynchronous satellite series comprised of Syncom 1-3, Intelsat I (Early Bird) and II F1-4, and NASA's Applications Technology Satellite (ATS) 1-6 made Hughes the world's leader in communications satellites.

Systems Analysis, Surveying the Moon, and Satellite Industrialization

Roney also oversaw Hughes's award of the NASA contract for development of the seven Surveyor spacecraft, five of which landed on the Moon[1]. Together with Leo Stoolman, he spent six months in 1960 responding to a NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory request for proposal to launch and automatically land spacecraft on the lunar surface to perform scientific experiments. Despite little initial support within Hughes, major reorganizations every six months, and the diffused involvement of thirteen operating divisions, Roney helped guide the project to success. This was even more remarkable given the change in mission--under new U.S. president John F. Kennedy, to investigate the feasibility of human landings--and the ongoing uncertainties of the launch vehicle--the Atlas/Centaur--that affected and reduced the spacecraft's payload. At the time no one knew the composition or density of the moon. With the successful "soft" landings in 1966-67, the Surveyor craft, their soil experiments, and thousands of electronic photographs affirmed that lunar dust was only a few centimeters deep with a basaltic substrate. Roney was promoted to manager of the Space & Communication Division in 1968, by which time Hughes had become the world leader in communications satellite production. It split off from the Aerospace Group in 1970 with the mission of developing and managing programs in researching and applying space technology with its own technical and commercial resources; Roney became divisional vice president three years later. He retired in 1988 after two years as corporate senior vice-president.

Avocation, Volunteer Service, and Honors

Away from work, Roney presided for 22 years over the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, and served on the boards of Caltech Associates and Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF), one of which he and his wife endowed. He was elected a Fellow of the IEEE in 1974 and elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1990 for "engineering contributions critical to the success of air-to-air missiles, lunar landing spacecraft, and communication satellites." Roney also received the Missouri Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Engineering in 1979 from his alma mater's College of Engineering. A member of Sigma Xi, Roney died 4 August 2017 and is survived by two children, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Further reading

  • Roney, Robert K. "Problems of Surface Exploration of the Moon and the Planets," in Deutsch, Armin J., and Wolfgang B. Klemperer, eds., Space Age Astronomy: Proceedings of an international Symposium, held August 7-9, 1961, at the California Institute of Technology in conjunction with the 11th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (New York: Academic Press: 1962), p.498-500.
  • "Dual mode Receiving and Transmitting Antenna," U.S. Patent 3,453,621, granted 1 July 1969.