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Alumni profile

Bob Wertheim, SM ’54

Pioneer in ballistic missile systems worked for the nation’s defense.
August 22, 2018
Courtesy of Robert Wertheim, SM ’54

When Bob Wertheim, SM ’54, was growing up in Carlsbad, New Mexico, there were only a few cowboys left and not much opportunity. “After the bombardment at Pearl Harbor in 1941, I, like other young men, was looking for a military connection,” he says. That led him to enroll at the New Mexico Military Institute in nearby Roswell.

He went on to become a rear admiral in the US Navy, a renowned rocket scientist, and of the most esteemed strategic weapons engineers in the country. He is perhaps best known for his engineering leadership of the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic weapon systems Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident, overseeing their conceptualization, development, production, and operations.

His career began in 1945 after he graduated from the US Naval Academy. His tours of duty placed him on destroyers and missile test ships in the Pacific and Atlantic; his shore assignments involved naval application of strategic nuclear weapon systems. In addition, he worked on the Navy’s atomic bomb assembly team.

His path also led him to MIT, where he earned a master’s in nuclear physics in 1954.

He then headed to Washington, DC, to work on the submarine ballistic missile program in the newly formed Special Projects Office, where he served 15 years. “I was a relatively junior officer at the start of the program, but they ignored that because I just happened to have the experience and education they needed,” he says. “MIT was key. I was lucky to be one of very few naval officers at that time who had the foundation to do this work.”

After two other assignments, he returned to the Special Projects Office to serve as technical director and, later, director of Navy Strategic Systems Programs.

“It was such exciting stuff,” he says. “While the systems were being developed, it was very high priority. We had an open checkbook. I was fascinated by what we were doing.”

After retiring in 1980, he served for seven years as senior vice president for science and engineering at Lockheed. Later he was a private consultant to the Department of Defense, the national labs at Livermore and Los Alamos, and the Charles Stark Draper Lab. Twice he received the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal.

Wertheim, now 95, has two sons and one grandson. His first wife, Barbara, died in 2001 after 54 years of marriage. He and his current wife, Joan, live in San Diego and enjoy playing golf.

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