Sandia LabNews

Sandia honors former executive VP Jack Howard for nuclear weapons work, starting Labs' California site

W.J. “Jack” Howard’s dedication to his life’s work becomes obvious even after a short visit with him, in the way he talks about his 36 years at Sandia and by glancing at the book sitting on the end table near the recliner where he sits. It’s Brotherhood of the Bomb by Gregg Herken, about the lives of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.

RETIRED SANDIA EXECUTIVE VP Jack Howard ponders the plaque that will be displayed in his honor in Sandia’s Bldg. 800. Jack, who launched Sandia’s California site in 1956 and was an early champion of improved use control and safety measures in nuclear weapons, is the third member of Sandia’s Hall of Fame, joining Sandia pioneers Glenn Fowler and Bob Henderson. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

The former Sandia executive VP — who was a valued national adviser on US nuclear policy and an advocate for nuclear weapons safety and control — has become the third Sandian to be inducted into the Labs’ Hall of Fame. The honor recognizes former employees who made pivotal contributions that have significantly enhanced Sandia.

RETIRED SANDIA EXECUTIVE VP Jack Howard ponders the plaque that will be displayed in his honor in Sandia’s Bldg. 800. Jack, who launched Sandia’s California site in 1956 and was an early champion of improved use control and safety measures in nuclear weapons, is the third member of Sandia’s Hall of Fame, joining Sandia pioneers Glenn Fowler and Bob Henderson. (Photo by Randy Montoya).

 During his career, Howard, 87, of Albuquerque, was responsible for the early recognition that US nuclear weapons needed built-in controls to prevent unauthorized or inadvertent arming. He also participated in early nuclear weapons tests, established the first independent nuclear safety assessment group at Sandia and was the first director of Sandia’s site in Livermore, Calif.

At a ceremony June 30 attended by dozens of Howard’s friends and former colleagues, Executive VP Al Romig said the honor was “reserved for people with a tremendous enduring impact” on the Labs.

‘Immeasurable contributions’

“Jack’s contributions to shaping the Laboratory as we know it today are immeasurable,” new Labs Director Paul Hommert said. “He is well qualified to join the ranks of those already in our Hall of Fame and stands as an exceptional example for all Sandians who will follow.”

Outgoing Labs Director Tom Hunter agrees, adding that, “I would describe Jack as one who laid the foundations not just for our nuclear weapons program but also for our values of national service and excellence.”

Jack, who was nominated for the Hall of Fame by Div. 1000 VP Steve Rottler, is the third inductee after former VP Glenn Fowler and former Executive VP Robert Henderson.

As a bronze bas-relief plaque of Jack’s likeness was unveiled at the ceremony, he smiled and clasped his hands together in a seeming gesture of thanks. The plaque will hang alongside the two others in the entrance lobby of Bldg. 800.

Colleagues say Jack, who retired in 1982 after serving nine years as executive VP, was a key executive in the Labs’ 60-year history and an excellent steward of Sandia. They describe him as a man of few carefully selected words who could motivate and mentor employees to make sure jobs got done right.

“He was a forward-looking person in a very pragmatic sense,” says Orval Jones, a former executive VP at Sandia who first worked with Jack in 1973. “Jack saw the need to really aggressively pursue nuclear weapons safety.”

Jack was born in Kimball, Neb., in 1922 and came to New Mexico with his family when he was a junior in high school.

Prior to joining Sandia, Jack graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from what is now New Mexico State University and served in World War II. While he served at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, Jack described how he survived a mountain airplane crash that killed the pilot by hiking for six days along a stream with a shattered kneecap until he found help. In 1946, Jack joined the Z Division of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is now Sandia Labs, when he was in his mid-20s. Jack recalled in a recent interview shooting rattle snakes and eating lunch outdoors next to a bubbling spring in Coyote Canyon in those early days.

“The mission I had at the time was firing 10,000 pounds of usual explosives. I fired one one day and it blew out some big store windows in Albuquerque. There had been a [temperature] inversion,” he says. After the incident, “we got our own instrument for measuring the inversion of the air. If there was an inversion, we didn’t shoot that day,” he says.

Over the years, Jack racked up a notable list of achievements in weapons work at Sandia. He directed the ordnance engineering design and development of the first Polaris missile warhead, which led to Sandia receiving a Certificate of Merit from the US Navy. And he was the motivating force behind the concept of the nuclear warhead and delivery system, which led to what is known as the “Davy Crockett” infantry weapon system. The system was designed for use by the US infantry in Europe against Soviet troops during the Cold War.

Safety and use control

Safety and control of nuclear weapons also mattered to Jack. To prevent unauthorized detonation of nuclear weapons, Jack recognized early the need for built-in control of the arming sequence of US nuclear weapons. He participated in preliminary design of the Permissive Action Link (PAL) system that resulted. The PAL system is a coded switch inside a nuclear weapon that blocks the arming signal and requires an order from the president to pass through the proper channels to the officer-in-charge, who then would enter the code.

“All I did was ask the question,” Jack says, when asked about his role in PAL.

Jack was instrumental in establishing an independent nuclear safety assessment group at Sandia in 1969. The group oversaw an ongoing safety review of existing nuclear weapons, developed new safety technologies, and developed techniques for evaluating evolving safety concepts.

Perhaps Jack’s most visible achievement to the public is Sandia/California’s site in Livermore. Jack was assigned in 1956 to inaugurate the new laboratory to provide ordnance engineering support to what is now known as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Jack recalled initially being located in dilapidated barracks, but a year later his employees moved to a new building.

Since Sandia/California was new, it had to be bold and innovative. But Jack says he was directed by a superior to “sing from the same sheet of music” with colleagues at Lawrence Livermore. “I said, ‘Yes, sir, but you’ve got to recognize there’s a heavy metal group just across the street,’” he says. Sandia/California has grown from that small initial group to about 1,100 employees today.

Jack also was appointed to national positions, including serving as a delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1976. He became a valued adviser in formulating and guiding the implementation of national nuclear policy.

From 1963-1966, he served as assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy at DoD and was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Military Liaison Committee. During this time, he assisted with ballistics support to locate a missing nuclear weapon near Palomares, Spain, after the collision of a B-52 and tanker aircraft during a refueling operation. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara awarded Jack the DoD Medal for Distinguished Public Service for his work.