Aerospace Engineering at Illinois alumnus John K. Soldner has been honored with the department’s 2017 Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Soldner, who earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from AE in 1977 and 1979, respectively, is Senior Program Manager/Spacecraft Analyst for Leidos, Inc., in Reston, Virginia. He has spent the past 15 years working in the classified world as a spacecraft analyst, manager and executive. “My work today is less aerospace-related and more management consulting, providing data-driven insights to senior government managers to enable them to improve the business of intelligence analysis,” Soldner said.
After earning his AE degrees, Soldner went to work for Boeing Aerospace in Seattle as a spacecraft thermal control engineer working on the Hubble Space Telescope design. Six months later, he was transferred to the Hubble prime contractor’s facility, Perkin-Elmer Corporation, in Danbury, Connecticut.
Soldner left Boeing in June 1980 and began work for a company then-called Science Applications International (SAI), which evolved into his current employer, Leidos. “I began my career with SAI in their office in the Chicago suburbs of Schaumburg, Illinois. I spent nine years in Schaumburg as a Mission Analyst designing robotic, planetary missions for the Solar System Exploration Division of NASA HQ. While in Chicago, I obtained my MBA from the University of Chicago in 1987.”
In the late-1990s’, the renamed Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) won a contract to do advanced manned mission planning at the Johnson Space Center. Soldner moved to Houston, managing a Division of SAIC engineers and scientists working in the Lunar/Mars Mission Exploration Office, and designing missions for the human exploration of Mars.
In 1992, Soldner was transferred to the SAIC office in downtown Washington, D.C., and was promoted to manage all of the SAIC work for NASA headquarters, including the scientific and engineering program support for both the Earth Science and Space Science Directorates.
After the country’s 9/11 tragedy, Soldner transferred to a part of SAIC that supports National Security clients, and continues his work there today.
Of the achievements throughout your career, please elaborate on the ones that have given you the most satisfaction and why?
The work I enjoyed the most was my time in Houston. It was a combination of the:
- Environment – working at the Johnson Space Center (mecca for someone growing up in the space-age)
- People – working with engineers who had pioneered the Apollo program, and
- Program – the NASA manager whom we supported was reporting directly to the Vice President of the United States on a monthly basis.
The work we were doing culminated in President (George H.W.) Bush’s speech on the 20th anniversary of the Lunar Landing in 1989 directing NASA to return astronauts to the Moon and then, on to Mars. Unfortunately, the program died a bureaucratic death, as many things do in Washington (D.C.).
The work that I am doing now though is the most satisfying. After many years in the same part of SAIC supporting NASA, I was able to start anew in my current organization. I was able to demonstrate my ability to manage and grow a business, and advanced in my career in ways I would never have been able to if I had stayed in my comfort zone.
What have been the most useful lessons you have taken from your time as an AE student, and who helped you to learn them?
The first important lesson I learned was from my freshman advisor (Prof. Zak). I came to Illinois as Valedictorian of my high school and was chosen for the Illinois State Scholarship, learning always came naturally to me so when I was stressing out over my first semester of final exams, Prof. Zak encouraged me – in language that cannot be printed here – to lighten up and not take school so seriously. This helped me to appreciate all that the University had to offer, not just the academics. Still useful advice today to not take yourself too seriously.
Another important lesson is to diversify yourself. I learned this by taking classes outside of the Engineering College. I enjoyed the eclectic mix of coursework I took as electives. While I do not remember much about aerodynamics, or control systems, e.g., I do remember vividly Classical Civilization 110 (Greek and Roman Mythology) and the course I took on Urban Geography.
In my junior year, I remember sending an unsolicited letter to Grumman Aerospace and receiving, what appeared to be, an invitation to fly out to Long island for an interview. Still being somewhat “small town” at the time, I scheduled a meeting with the College of Engineering Dean Wakeland, and showed him the letter. He replied matter-of-factly that yes, indeed they were inviting me for an interview, why was that so hard to understand? And it was then that the light bulb went off for me on what it meant to have a degree in Engineering from the University of Illinois.
What have been the most useful lessons you have learned during your career?
Career advancement is a do-it-yourself project.
Know your limitations. I was never an in-the-weeds, technical details person, but was always more interested in the business side of the project, and only interested in the technical side at the macro level.
Personal connections with mentors, and others you admire in the workplace, are important. As they advance, you may have an opportunity to advance with them.
Work hard and do not complain. A particular job, or boss, or work environment has a way of changing for the better. Managers notice people who stay late and get the work done.
Have a plan on where you want to go with your career – but be flexible; realize there are many paths that will get you to the ultimate destination.
Finally, be nice to people. You never know when that peer that you really didn’t like much, becomes your boss later in your career.
Who have been your inspirations, particularly in AE?
Professor (John) Prussing. I was a “space” guy not an “airplane” guy, so I gravitated to all of the classes that were space-related (and in the mid-1970s there were not that many.) I cannot really articulate what it is was about Professor Prussing that resonated with me, but I enjoyed the subject matter in his classes, his teaching style, his easy-going demeanor, and the fact that as a student, he was just great to be around. If I have one specialty in the aerospace field, it is orbital mechanics, which I owe to John. I still blatantly plagiarize many of his class notes and home works in my class I currently teach at the George Washington University (although I do plug his book to my students!). I have stayed connected with him all these years and always look forward to seeing him every year on campus.
What advice can you offer current students?
I realize that this is not unique, but my best advice is to do something you enjoy – if you truly enjoy what you are doing you will do a much better job. Most importantly, try to get an internship, or a co-op experience, with an aerospace company while still in school. This will give you knowledge of the different kinds of positions and roles that you could fill when you graduate. This will also give you a head-start on knowing what you like, and don’t like; something you otherwise would have to change jobs several times early in your career to figure out.
Do you have any comments on or predictions for the future of your industry?
Aerospace technology will continue to play an important role in many fields not normally associated with aerospace. Jobs for graduates will no longer be confined to just aerospace companies (like Boeing, or even Space X, e.g.). Unlike when I graduated and a non-traditional job would have been working on automobile aerodynamics for GM, future graduates will be working for leading high-tech companies, like Amazon, maybe designing space missions, but also designing delivery drones, e.g.
Are there any other comments that you would like to make or insights you would care to share?
Be open to moving out of the Midwest. As I have shared, the work I did in Texas and D.C. were the most enjoyable and satisfying. You meet people from across the country and the globe that bring totally different perspectives.