In memoriam
Ralph Chatham, Ph.D. Oct 15, 1948 - May 18, 2013

This speach was given in November of 2007 at the party for Ralph's retirement from DARPA (for the second time.)


I’m always asked … often asked, … well, somebody asked me last week … to tell the story of how I got to DARPA. The problem, besides my perennial one of too many words, is that, as Pete Seger said, “A story has a beginning, a muddle, and an end,” In real life, it is hard to figure out where to start.

I could start with my passion from age 4 to be an astronaut, before the word had been invented. Or the story might start with watching, mesmerized, Victory at Sea and the Silent Service on 1950s television. Maybe I could start with my decision to join the Navy ROTC in 1965 because I thought I owed something to the country.

Or I could start when, as an NROTC Midshipman, after the 5th badly executed wingover in a training aircraft, and after the training pilot took a spiraling dive from 5000 to 500 feet, I wondered where one could stash a fully filled motion sickness bag in a cramped cockpit. I realized that the time to decide that I didn’t want to make a career of something was when I was doing it and I wasn’t enjoying it.

I made the same decision the next year after 63 days underwater when I found that the best officers on that nuclear submarine were leaving the Navy as soon as they got home because of Admiral Rickover’s Gestapo-like personnel policies. Diesel subs were another matter and I found an administrative trick to become a submariner without applying to become one of the Grand Admiral’s nucs. I became, instead, one of a small set of Burke Scholars selected in Naval Infancy to go first to sea and then off to get a Ph.D. in science and then return to sea. Rickover wanted no one who was encumbered with other commitments, so I got sent to a diesel boat instead of a nuc. I had originally intended to forgo the Navy sponsored-education, but after serving as the ship’s engineer (responsible for half the crew and all the machinery), getting the job after only 2 years onboard, I was seduced to the dark side of being a rich graduate student.

4 years later, as I was about to get that degree in laser physics (I defended my dissertation on Halloween, in uniform), Admiral Rickover’s people sent for me. I told them that I hadn’t volunteered to be a nuc. They said that it was impossible to have been a submariner without volunteering, and eventually I “knew right answer when told.”

So perhaps the story should begin when Rickover kicked me out of his office the third time. The second time it was because, when asked “why the hell did you join the Navy” and I answered –as I had been explicitly told not to – “Because I thought I owed something to the Country.” He kicked me out the last time saying “the Navy needs you like a dose of the clap. Now get out of here and get yourself a niche in the civilian world where you can use your God Damned Ph.D.”

But he had driven so many officers out that the other part of the Navy sent me to be Operations Officer and Navigator of a ballistic missile-carrying nuclear-powered submarine, the third senior guy aboard; Without being Rickover trained, I couldn’t inherit command, but I told the boat where to go and the power-plant followed me. I did, however, on occasion get motion sick to varying degrees. But only once needing the submarine equivalent of the bag I had used on the T-34.

That leads to 1980 when, as I came home from a 3-month patrol, my wife told me that we were going to Houston because I was a finalist candidate for mission specialist astronaut. They poked and prodded me for a week. They spun me on a chair to find out how I got motion sick, all the while assuring me that it didn’t count because they had no idea why half the people who went into space got sick, or how to tell which of them would get sick. I left Houston with not a little hope.

Two months later they called and told me that I was too susceptible to motion sickness and could go back to sea. … So I did, but that application remained in my detailer’s bottom drawer and when he needed a submariner candidate for the job of Military Assistant to the Defense Science Board he put my name in to the selection board. As it turned out, the board consisted of the Under Secretary of Defense turning to his military aid and asking, “You were CO of USS Barbel. This Chatham guy seems to have served on her. Do you know him?” Howard Elderedge was the guy who chose me to be engineer while still a LTJG. He said, “He IS a bit weird, but right for the job.”

So I came ashore. While carrying the coffee for the DSB I happened to inspire Tom Clancy to write Hunt for Red October, and by a completely different chain of coincidences became the book’s technical editor. I discovered DARPA and tried to get the job of the Naval Officer who was running a program here to put lasers in space to talk through clouds and ocean (and other stuff I can’t mention) to submarines at speed and depth. My detailer said I had to go back to sea as a submarine operations liaison officer for a carrier battle group. They rejected me because I wasn’t a nuc. So the detailer sent a request into the system for “Ph.D. comma Naval Officer, and got back the response Laser Physicist, DARPA.

So I got to DARPA the first time. I spent $120M or so of the government’s money (not adjusted for inflation – it was 3% of the agency’s budget), but a few years later our enemy deserted us and all I can claim came out of my first tour at DARPA was a fine DoD hero pin and a small contribution to creating green laser pointers. – and maybe we helped scare the Soviets into bankrupcy. And … in 1986, while in the STO conference room with Tony Tether, we learned that the Challenger had blown up shortly after launch. The next day I got call from an acquaintance who said, “I didn’t know you were a 1980 astronaut finalist.” I asked, “How did you know.” He replied, “I was, too, and I just looked at the list and found your name next to one of those who just died.” I replied, “It’s worse, another of them was the laser guy chosen that year.”

After I had been at DARPA for 4 ½ years, just two days from becoming their liaison to the White House Science Office, the first substitute Rickover yanked me out and sent me to internal exile in the Naval Sea Systems Command for talking to the press about superconductors and a 20 year wild chance that they might have something to do for submarine propulsion density. (something Jan Walker would have saved me from, had she been there.) I didn’t annoy the Admiral alone, Craig Fields helped, too.

I retired from the Navy. I became a slimy contractor and one day (and this is where the story really starts), when I visited the staff of an enlightend guy in the CIA to tell them about diesel submarine operations in China, they said, “Not interested in that today. Can you tell us how to connect exercise and training behavior with military proficiency?” When I got my jaw off the table, I told them how to start. I ended up working on the task for almost a year and delivered a report that the enlightened guy liked, but his staff didn’t understand. Two years later, after telling Craig Fields about the report in the lobby during DARPA’s 40th reuninon, he, now Chairman of the Defense Science Board did understand. He sent me a note saying that this is the best thing he had seen on training in 20 years and would I run a taskforce of the DSB on the subject. Once again, I knew right answer when told, so I did.

Hmmmm. Maybe the story begins at the 2000 DARPATECH when I was sitting in the hotel room late at night trying to come up with actionable recommendations. I was tired, I knew I would sleep through the talks the next day and suddenly I decided, “DARPA’s gonna pay for this..” and I wrote that there should be an office in DARPA to do training and human effectiveness. After the report went to press, Tony was appointed Director of DARPA and I forwarded a copy. I said that we were going to brief the SECDEF soon and he might think of how he wanted to answer the ensuing mail. I also asked him for a job. He told me I needed one of those program plans with milestones and tasks and the lines and triangles to go with it.

One Monday I called his office to say I was ready. They gave me a slot that Friday (This is not fiction, he really had an opening). The next day was September 11, 2001. On Friday in a subdued meeting, Tony said “Welcome Back.”

So that’s how I got here. If I hadn’t been just a little bit motion sick, this story might have ended a lot earlier. … if I hadn’t gone to the DARPA 40th or DARPATECH 2000, I’d still be a slimy contractor. If Rickover had liked me, I’d never have discovered DARPA at all.

This time here I achieved a lot more with much less money, so maybe I am getting good at it. In between I watched my favorite wife (favorite for 37 years) having far too much fun being a storyteller, so I horned in on her territory. We raised two smart independent-minded children.

Hmmmm, a story needs an ending, too. I intend to become a private insultant, so if you need some paid insulting, I will be your man after they drag me out, next Friday, leaving heal marks on the carpet. But, if you want a real story, please take one of my story tapes out of the boxes over there. (But JUST ONE. If you want two of them, the DARPA discount price is $5 apiece. –after all, I can’t use DARPA to support my storytelling habit anymore.)


A final thing – in line with the reason I joined the Navy so long ago – I think I owe something back to DARPA and its people and its performers for the wonderful ride I have had over 10 ¼ discontinuous years as a program manager here:

I have been corresponding with an old member of BARBEL’s Engineering Department, who I found out only this year, would have followed that skinny little LTJG anywhere. I used to tour the ship before each watch and thus had to open the engine-room watertight door against the differential pressure caused by three 11,000 horsepower diesels sucking air out of the aft end of the ship. I would kick and push and get the door cracked and then the darn door would pop back again. Everybody could tell by the pressure changes in their ears that that little guy was once again desperately trying to open the door to get on to standing his watch. Eventually one of the big enginemen would take pity on me and, with a big grin, open it one handed. I was embarrassed each watch, and never knew that Jim Knowles and the others began to admire that skinny guy who kept on trying.

So Jim asked me two weeks ago who were my heros in DARPA because he wanted to do something for them. I told him that my wave-function didn’t extend more than 30 feet and did not penetrate concrete, so, while there are many more, I could only identify the few I personally knew who were saving lives today. Because he lives in Hawaii, sent me three very special leis for them.

Leo and Mari, please step up here. (Goeff Ling couldn’t make it so I will give him his later).

Leo’s Wasp and armor have been saving lives directly, and he knows some of those he has saved.

Goeff knows those he saved in a Baghdad hospital very intimately. His prosthetics program is now making some of those lives more worth living.

Mari’s TIGRNET was singled out at a DSB meeting in September, by a three star who just left Iraq, as one of the greatest things technology has done for his Soldiers.

Jim also sent a lei for my wife, Margaret.

So from Jim Knowles, common citizen and retired submariner, and from me too, thanks for your service to our Nation.

And this is really for all of you, too. It is the people of DARPA, YOU, who deliver such value to our country, and who have made this the greatest job of my life.

Thanks!