Ralph H. Jacobson 

Retired Draper President Ralph H. Jacobson, 1931-2014   


Retired president and chief executive officer of Draper Laboratory Ralph H. Jacobson died Nov. 1, 2014, at the age of 82 years. Jacobson served as president of Draper Laboratory from 1987 to 1997. After retiring he continued his service to Draper as a Member of the Corporation, becoming a Member Emeritus in 2004.

Jacobson’s Air Force career

Jacobson brought to the presidency of Draper Lab his experience in the U.S. Air Force, from which he had retired in 1987 as a major general after a 32-year career. From 1983 to 1987 Jacobson had served as Director of Special Projects in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. From 1970 to 1983 he held assignments in the Space Program, including the Space Shuttle Program Office at NASA Headquarters. Between 1956 and 1970 Jacobson’s assignments included tours as a Tactical Airlift Pilot in Vietnam; Air Force Project Officer for the procurement of the Draper-developed Titan II Inertial Guidance System, and as an Action Officer on the Air Staff in the Pentagon.

Jacobson was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956 with a bachelor of science degree in engineering and a commission as Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. He received his pilot’s wings in August 1957 and shortly afterwards he joined the 778th Troop Carrier Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, as a C-119 and C123 pilot. He received his master’s degree in astronautics in August 1962 from the Air Force Institute of Technology. At the Air Command and Staff College from July 1965 to July 1966 Jacobson earned a master’s degree in business administration from The George Washington University.

Jacobson’s military awards and decorations include the Defense, National Intelligence Community, and Air Force Distinguished Service Medals; the Legion of Merit with one oak leaf cluster; the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters; the Joint Service Commendation Medal; and the Air Force Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters.

Jacobson’s presidency

During his decade as president, Jacobson led the Laboratory through a difficult period of funding challenges. Draper’s design work on a new guidance system for the Fleet Ballistic Missile Trident II missile had a set end date and was an expected transitional challenge; however, the large size of the program made it difficult to replace such an amount of funding, and the program employed a high percentage of Draper’s staff. On its heels came an unexpected development--the end of the Cold War, signaled with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That resulted in a sharp decline in spending by the Department of Defense.

Jacobson made a priority of securing other government funding, diversifying the mix of programs and sponsors. In the meantime spending needed to be cut significantly, which required reductions in staffing levels. This process began in 1989 with offering retirement incentives, combined with a hiring freeze.

Those steps and attrition covered more than 60% of the staffing reduction needed, but to close the gap Jacobson had to make the difficult decision to implement layoffs, the first in Draper’s history.

During this process, Draper increased its investments in IR&D and company-sponsored research, both to keep staff and to develop technologies to attract more sponsored work. Technologies that were advanced under internal research during Jacobson’s tenure include microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and multichip modules, which remain important to Draper’s current work.

Additionally, the operational structure of the technical project work was changed from program-based to a matrix. Technical staff members no longer were assigned to a specific program area and instead could be assigned to projects in any program area based on their skills.

In the face of so much change at the Laboratory, Draper continued to perform well for its sponsors. Following successful flight testing in 1987, the Trident II (D5) missile was deployed on time and on budget with Draper’s guidance system in 1990. The 1995 Space Shuttle/Space Station docking was successful utilizing Draper’s guidance and control technology.

Draper maintained its commitment to advanced technical education during this period. The Laboratory began a program of selecting staff annually to send to the Tufts Gordon Institute master of science degree in engineering management program. That practice continues today.

In 1994 Draper was awarded the Omnibus Basic Ordering Agreement, which Jacobson had been working to secure for more than 18 months, aided by strong support from Navy Strategic Programs. The Omnibus contract was a mechanism making it quicker and easier for any government sponsor to contract with Draper on a sole-source basis. This helped offset the effects of the earlier Competition in Contracting Act, which had made it more difficult for government customers to contract with Draper on a noncompetitive basis. The first Omnibus contract had a ceiling of $210M over three years.

The timing allowed Jacobson to see Draper rebounding before he retired in 1997. Jacobson’s legacy at Draper also includes establishment of the Charles Stark Draper Prize by the National Academy of Engineering in 1988 at Draper’s request and funded by an endowment provided by Draper Laboratory. Jacobson had recommended establishment of the prize to Draper’s Board of Directors.

During his tenure, Jacobson represented Draper on the Fleet Ballistic Missile program’s Steering Task Group. He also served as a member of the Strategic Advisory Group for the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, as well as on a number of panels and subgroups. For those efforts he was presented with Outstanding Public Service Awards by both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense.

Jacobson served on the NASA Advisory Council and the NASA Shuttle-Mir task force. For his service on the Shea Task Force on the Hubble Space Telescope first servicing mission he was awarded the NASA Public Service Medal.

Jacobson was a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Jacobson’s life after Draper

Following his presidency Jacobson served as a consultant for various corporations, most recently Space Systems Loral and to Loral Corporation. He had been a consultant to Boeing Satellite Systems, Booz/Allen/Hamilton, Cymer Corporation, and Northrop Grumman previously. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Education Systems, Inc., and of Fairchild Controls Corporation.

Jacobson was a member of Sandia National Laboratories National Security Advisory Panel and of the NASA International Space Station Advisory Committee.

Memorial plans

He is survived by his wife, Joan Jacobson, of Austin, Texas; his three children, Betsy Jacobson Klene of Park City, Utah, Matthew Jacobson of Cumberland, Maine, and James Jacobson of Austin, Texas; and his eight grandchildren: Brigitte, Jane, and Charlie Klene; Steven Henry and Maggie Jacobson; and William, Patrick, and Colin Jacobson.

A service for Jacobson is scheduled for Friday, November 21, 2014, in the Naval Academy chapel from 10 to 11 a.m. The burial will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Naval Academy property with a reception following.

A memorial tribute fund has been set up in Jacobson’s honor with the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation’s Athletic and Scholarship Programs, a group for which he served as trustee. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the USNA Foundation by telephone, mail, or online. Please specify that the donation is made in memory of Ralph Jacobson, class of 1956. Donations can be mailed to USNA Foundation at 25 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD 221401, or made by calling 410-295-4095 or 800-468-7623. Online donations can be made at https://www.usna.com/sslpage.aspx?pid=228; fill in the amount next to Athletic Excellence, scroll down and check “in memory of …” and fill in Ralph Jacobson and class year 1956.