Aerospace Engineering at Illinois Alumni Profile: Arthur Ibers

2017-06-12

Arthur Ibers, left, with AE Department Head Philippe Geubelle
Arthur Ibers, left, with AE Department Head Philippe Geubelle
Aerospace Engineering at Illinois alumnus Arthur A. Ibers has been honored with the department’s 2017 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Ibers, who earned a bachelor’s degree in AE in 1984, is Senior Vice President for Leidos, Inc., in Reston, Virginia. He leads the company’s Exploration and Mission Support group, overseeing a team of more than 2,600 employees for programs within the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and many other civilian agencies.

After earning his AE degree, Ibers applied to and was accepted to Stanford University, but without financial aid. “One of my (AE) professors, Dr. Lee Sentman, noted that he had obtained his degrees from Stanford while working at Lockheed Missiles and Space (LMSC) in Sunnyvale, and contacted Lockheed on my behalf,” Ibers recalled. “Long story short, Gene Pelka (who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1968 from AE and at that time was a leader at LMSC) agreed to fund my Stanford education if I’d work at least 30 hours a week. I accepted without a plant interview or any understanding of what I’d be doing.”

Ibers earned his master’s degree at Stanford while designing complex attitude control systems for classified spacecraft at Lockheed. “I continued to work at Lockheed for seven years doing amazing engineering – but as the program design, build, and launch came to an end, my interest in doing something new accelerated,” he said.

“The 1984 ‘World Series’ earthquake accelerated my wife’s desire to move from California, and I ultimately accepted a job with IBM building classified spacecraft command and control ground systems,” Ibers said. “IBM moved us to Maryland and I continued my career with opportunities of increasing responsibility within the classified world.”

Ibers held positions as a chief engineer and software manager. Ultimately, his interest in program management led him to his first program management role for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA’s) Integrated Exploitation Capability program. “From there, I had the opportunity to lead multiple troubled-program turn-around efforts, and in 2010 became the Program Manager of the FBI’s $1.2 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) Program,” he said. “NGI was the program that completely modernized the nation’s fingerprint system – a far cry from Aeronautical Engineering!”

Corporate mergers switched Ibers’ employer from IBM to Loral to Lockheed Martin to Leidos, where he works currently.

Of the achievements throughout your career, please elaborate on the ones that have given you the most satisfaction and why?

Two events come to mind as the most rewarding. The first comes from my work at Lockheed. After four years of design, test, and development, I had the opportunity to watch real-time telemetry of our spacecraft following booster separation – with my reaction control system endeavoring to capture the spacecraft attitude and orient into a stable sun-pointing attitude. It is incredibly gratifying (and terrifying) to watch your algorithm, sensors, and thrusters be the critical step in the safe capture of a very important asset.

The second was the successful declaration of “Final Operational Capability” (FOC) for the FBI’s Next Generation Identification system. After four years of effort, I was fortunate to have led a team of remarkable professionals and partnered with an incredibly talented customer to achieve an on-schedule FOC with the successful “no going back” transition of the legacy biometric system. That overnight transition immediately turned on some 1 million lines of complex code to support 18,000 law enforcement agencies in their daily activities in fighting crime and terror.

What have been the most useful lessons you have taken from your time as an AE student, and who helped you to learn them?

It is not the calculus nor aerodynamics nor structures that will carry you in your career – it is the ability to solve problems and to work with and lead a team of diverse expertise towards a critical and demanding goal that is the most valuable. This focus on teamwork and on working together to solve what appear to be daunting projects I learned at Illinois through both faculty and peer student interactions.

What have been the most useful lessons you have learned during your career?

Key lessons:

  • Run to hard programs and problems, not away from them.
  • Surround yourself with incredibly talented people, but make sure they think differently than you and approach problems differently.
  • Accept feedback openly. Never shoot the messenger. Learn from every interaction.
  • Over communicate – and learn to communicate flawlessly, in writing, in speaking, and in emails.
  • Always perform with excellence. Execute the simple blocking and tackling tasks with perfection and timeliness.
  • Do what’s right.
  • Find a way to have fun at work – insert workplace humor.
  • Be the kind of leader that you would want to follow.

Who have been your inspirations, particularly in AE?

Dr. Bruce Conway was instrumental in solidifying my interest in orbital dynamics and spacecraft. My first task at LMSC was, given certain constraints, to determine the maximum amount of time a spacecraft could spend in penumbra. I immediately fell back on Dr. Conway’s teachings and graphics (which I still have) to solve this problem. That interest led me to pursue the advanced degree in control systems (from Stanford), and that led to my rewarding experiences at LMSC and ultimately all of my activities within Lockheed, IBM, Loral, and now Leidos.

What advice can you offer current students?

Fully embrace and maximize the college experience. Take advantage of all opportunities to learn more, experience more, and enjoy more. Love the Aerospace field – but be prepared to take what you have learned at school during your career in Aerospace and be open to new ideas, opportunities, challenges and lifelong learning. LIke me, those humble beginnings may take you places you never imagined were possible or even interesting.

Open yourself to new possibilities, and then leverage your ability to solve problems, work in teams, and communicate effectively to do amazing work in any field.

Do you have any comments on or predictions for the future of your industry?

In many respects, we are at a crossroads. The combination of commercial entrepreneurs like Musk and Bezos with new and exciting national capabilities like NASA's Space Launch System and the Orion spaceraft have the potential to rapidly accelerate space exploration and space travel. The Martian movie may not be science fiction in a few years. For those interested in spacecraft, space travel, and all of the complexities associated with it, this is truly the most exciting time since Apollo.