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A Space Pioneer Remembered

August 14, 2013  - By
Colonel Francis Xavier Kane

Painting of Colonel Francis Xavier Kane (courtesy of the USAF Space and Missile Pioneers).

Plus: The First Installment of ‘What Is Don Reading?’

This month I planned to catch up on all those important topics that need to be written about but don’t make the cut, mainly due to space limitations — and then came the sad news of the passing of a good friend, mentor, and great Space and Missile Pioneer, Colonel Francis Xavier Kane, Ph.D., USAF Retired, born on December 12, 1918, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. To put this date in perspective, consider that the first successful Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk occurred in 1903.

Known simply as “Duke” to his friends and colleagues, he went to be with the Lord on July 18, 2013. He was 94 years old, and the majority of those years were filled with futuristic thoughts and writings about what we could achieve in the heavens above us, and accomplishments that support the Space Age we all live in today.

I first met Colonel Kane in 1973, a full three years after he retired with 27 years of active duty in the USAF. Duke graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1943 in the middle of WWII. In those days, there was not an U.S. Air Force Academy. What would become the U.S. Air Force was then known as the Army Air Corp. The USAF did not become a separate military service until September 18, 1947, with the implementation of the eponymous National Security Act. Still, Duke found himself in an Air Force uniform, flying airplanes and instructing others how to fly. He loved flying, but as you will soon discover, he was an engineer and professor at heart. He played to his strengths.

I never knew Duke while he was in uniform. Despite my best efforts to refer to him with proper military courtesy as Colonel Kane, he quickly remonstrated me and informed me that to his friends and colleagues he was known simply as Duke, and so “simply Duke” it has been for the last 40 years. At the end of our conversation about appropriate appellations, he added, “And no one calls me Francis-Xavier except my wife Virginia, and then I know I’m in the dog house!” (Ed: Duke and Virginia were married for 67 years).

Duke Kane was the first to send me a wonderful handwritten letter of congratulations via snail mail back in 2007, when I penned my first column as the Defense Editor for GPS World magazine. The letter was extremely complimentary, with high praise I had certainly not yet earned, but then that was Duke — always supportive. Comments in his letter I will always treasure are “Finally, we have someone writing regularly about GPS that actually knows what he is writing about…and don’t forget, Don, I have declassified history files dating back to the early days of the 621B program and they are always at your disposal.”

I heard regularly from Duke, several times a year at least, and it was always a note of encouragement or praise; what every journalist needs. It meant a lot to me personally that it came from Duke because, you see, Duke was a very prolific writer and thinker himself, and perhaps at times even a frustrated journalist. Some of his wonderful and insightful writing on the possible uses of the “Space Domain” as a medium for our future infrastructure are seminal and even legendary today — such as the one he wrote on terrestrial navigation using space assets, which helped spawn the aforementioned 621B program that led to the Global Positioning System. More on that later.

Duke was a prolific writer, but rarely took credit for his futuristic ideas. While serving as an Air Force planner, Duke penned papers concerning the initial development and importance of systems analysis and applications of early computers for both terrestrial and space applications. Early on, Duke saw the need to develop a coherent planning and policy environment in the DoD (Department of Defense) to enhance the evolution of and to formally inculcate the U.S. space program, to include systems and technology planning.

In the early 1960s, Duke wrote profusely concerning space-based missile warning, known today as the DSP or Defense Support Program and more recently as the SBIRS or Space-Based Infrared System. He wrote about manned space maneuvering vehicles, now known as the Space Shuttle, which came and went during his lifetime, as well as the detection and tracking of mobile missiles and the possibility of shooting them down with lasers. He also wrote about lasers as “blindingly effective” anti-satellite weapons, a capability and problem that modern planners and operators are still worrying about and dealing with today. He wrote about advanced ballistic missiles, which we know today as the MX or the Peacekeeper program.

He was always ahead of his time. He wrote knowledgeably about space-based missile defense, a theme he would later revive as a member of the GPS Independent Review Team (GPS-IRT), which several of us invited him to join because in the 1960s he penned significant white papers concerning the possibility and credibility of navigation satellites, which of course we know today as the Global Positioning System. He was, in many respects, a visionary.

Before his retirement in 1970, Duke managed to find the time to complete a master’s degree in political science and a doctorate from Georgetown University. He went on to teach courses at UCLA, the University of California at Los Angeles, the Catholic University of America, and Pepperdine College.

Duke loved to think and write about the future. One of his favorite topics was the Global Positioning System, which in many respects sprang from the classified 621B program he supported toward the end of his Air Force career.

Aerospace Corporation Historian Steven R. Strom, in his insightful writings and interviews with luminaries of the early U.S. space programs, with an emphasis on the history of GPS, wrote that in 1963 the Air Force Space Systems Division funded Colonel Kane to lead a classified project known as 621B. Phase one of 621B featured the engineering concept for a “space-based navigation system,” later to become known as the Global Positioning System or more formally as the GPS/NAVSTAR. According to Colonel Bradford Parkinson, Ph.D. USAF, retired — and the first GPS Program Manager/Director at what is now SMC — Project 621B had “many of the attributes that you now see in GPS. It has probably never been given its due credit.”

Duke never forgot those early days or got over his involvement and fascination with GPS. In 1993, 23 years after his retirement from active duty, Duke founded the GPS International Association. He served on the U.S. Department of Transportation Civil GPS Service Interface Committee and authored more than 20 significant articles on GPS and other critical space-based systems.

Finally, in 2010 Duke was inducted as an Air Force Space and Missile Pioneer — his picture and a short biography hang in the entryway of AFSPC (Air Force Space Command) Headquarters (the Hartinger building) on Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado — a well-deserved honor of which Duke was extremely but humbly proud.

Colonel Francis Xavier “Duke” Kane — fighter pilot, flight instructor, engineer, professor, visionary and, for many, a friend and mentor who will be sorely missed.

Now on to the Catch-up Topics…

As my regular readers are aware, I generally take a long time to evaluate PNT and PNT-related equipment sent for me to review, and I only review about one in twenty items. For years I have reviewed and recommended OtterBox equipment for keeping iPads, iPhones and assorted PNT handhelds safe from the environment. They are indeed some of the best add-on “ruggedizers” I have ever encountered. However, a few weeks ago I called the wonderful folks at OtterBox to enquire about a rugged mounting system for PNT equipment and discovered to my dismay that they just don’t do that. Not an area of expertise for them. Fair enough, and I certainly appreciated their honesty. Then, out of the blue, I received an email from Francesca Marino at Blast Media on behalf of Rokform, a relatively new U.S. company that builds rugged mounting systems that she said were perfect for our warfighters. She even included the following advertisement/vignette:

Made in the USA, all Rokform products are designed and engineered of CNC aircraft grade aluminum. Each accessory allows soldiers to mount their phone magnetically, or by Remote Mounting System (RMS), to dashboards of any vehicle. A member of the Navy inland search and rescue team accounts his experience with Rokform’s RokBed v3 case while on duty for helicopter rappel operations:

“I’m active duty military, and one of our engineers bought the magnet for his [Rokform] case as I had. While standing on the quarterdeck, he accidentally dropped his phone and tried to kick it back onboard before it went in the drink. He only succeeded in kicking it overboard…only to have it catch itself on the side of the ship! Several others saw what happened and were surprised when he was able to retrieve his phone from its watery grave! I had to share that story as you had to be there to believe it.”

Francesca asked if I would be interested in receiving a sample of a Rokform rugged smartphone or iPad case for testing.

I took Francesca up on her offer, and frankly, I am impressed with the earth-magnet mounting system on the Rokform equipment cases, and especially with the v3 mounting system (see picture). I have used the v3 for a couple of months in numerous rental cars and with both my iPhone and my iPad — it works flawlessly. It has never released involuntarily even on hot and cold surfaces, and it has never dropped my iPhone or iPad on the dash. Not something I can honestly say about any other device of this type I have tested. I also use the v3 at home on a granite counter top Sometimes just getting it unstuck is a chore, but a happy one. It simply works as advertised; it holds whatever you attach securely and effectively, and has the flexibility and maneuverability to do so in all kinds of environments. It is truly rugged, versatile and very useful. It stays where you mount it, and it is made in the USA. I highly recommend it.

The Rokoform v3 mounting system.

The Rokform v3 mounting system.


There are numerous hands-free options for the v3 Suction Mount. Attach the mount to any smooth, flat, non-porous surface, and adjust to your ideal viewing angle. A few of the locations I tested include a conference table, desk, car window, windscreen, mirror, and sunroof.


  • Polycarbonate and die cast zinc construction
  • 360-degree turn and rotation
  • 210-degree tilt for ideal viewing angles
  • Powerful suction pad measures 3.4 inches (86.4 mm) in diameter

The v3 is compatible with all v3 mountable phone cases, which pretty much covers the waterfront on phone cases, and so they should have one that fits your needs.

There is a separate attachment for your mobile devices that uses adhesive if you just don’t want to use the suction cup model — just beware that once you attach the separate small earth-magnet device, to a case or your automobile, it is not coming off. Be sure you want it there permanently. I view this as a good thing: no falling iPhone or iPads. But it is just something you need to contemplate. Of course, the v3 works with a tenacious suction cup, so there is not a permanence issue with that device. Try it.

What Is Don Reading?

Ever since I started penning this column and mentioning books I have read or am reading and frequently quoting from them, I have received a steady array of requests to discuss the books and recommend or review them, even if they are not primarily about GPS or PNT.

Certainly, locating books to review is not an issue. My wife calls me a parallel reader, in that I am generally reading two, three, even four books at a time. The question is will any of them be of interest to you? Let’s find out. While we are not sure this feature will appeal to all of you, or if we can make this a regular feature due to time and space limitations, we will give it a trial run this month. Please let us know what you think and what you are reading that may be of interest to our readers, at

I recently had the pleasure of reading two books about wartime that cover two distinct periods of time and are actually in different genres. However both books are fascinating for very different reasons.

ViperPilot-coverViper Pilot:  A Memoir of Air Combat, by Dan Hampton (USAF, Ret).

This book is a “must-read” for air combat aficionados in that it is a seat-of-the-pants warfighter, fighter-pilot view of the air wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. It is also a very candid fighter pilot’s view of how those wars were managed or not managed, as the case may be. Dan certainly pulls no punches, and if you have any romantic visions of aerial combat and how it comes about — as portrayed in movies like Twelve O’Clock High — then this book may prove to be an eye-opener.

Be warned, it takes a chapter or two for Dan to set the hook, but if you are still engaged by chapter three, you should be good and firmly on the line. The first two chapters are more of what those of us in-the-business refer to as standard fighter-pilot rhetoric, as in “I am god’s gift to the world and am without a doubt the world’s best fighter pilot.” Indeed, the first two chapters do a good job of substantiating the old barb, “You can always tell a fighter pilot, but you can’t tell him much.” Today, to be politically correct, I guess that would have to be him or her much.

However, in retrospect, who would want to read a book by a warfighter, especially an F16C Wild Weasel fighter pilot, who was not absolutely sure of his or her superiority? Not me. Indeed, another old barb that applies here, “There are bold pilots and old pilots but very few old bold pilots.” After you read Viper Pilot, I think you will agree than Dan Hampton, who by his own humble admission is one of the most decorated F-16 pilots in American history, is certainly the exception to the rule.

Most importantly, Dan Hampton gets it right, technically and operationally. His frustration with incompetent ground-pounders and support personnel notwithstanding, he tells it like it is, and you quickly detect that his frustrations are probably justified and his feelings, which he freely shares without compunction, are certainly justified, at least in his view of the world.

As far as I can decipher, and I was in that business for almost thirty years, there are no glaring errors or even small mistakes about procedure, process, or organizational charts. He tells it like it is and lets the pieces, whether blame or commendation, fall where they may. It is a great read, and one that all history, war, airplane and aerial-combat buffs will find a must read. And yes, there are numerous references to GPS and GPS-guided weapons and effects. I thoroughly enjoyed it — even though the language can at times be a bit over the top and is totally unnecessary to the storyline, but then, when you are God’s gift to fighter pilots, what do you expect?

By the way, rumor has it Dan is in the process of writing another book. I, for one, can’t wait.

Ledger-coverThe Ledger, by Lloyd Holm

This wartime romantic novel by Lloyd Holm is certainly a departure from Viper Pilot. This book is romantic in nature, but in a good way, and yet is also a very true and authentic synopsis of what it was like during both WWI and WWII, which was globally known as the “War to end all Wars.”

Lloyd Holm does a great job of setting the hook immediately. No waiting. I read it in one sitting and was disappointed only because it was over. I wanted the story to go on and on. Hint to Mr. Holm: There is certainly a sequel here if you have it in you.

This fast paced riveting story concerns two families and their involvement with each other during both world wars. The story more or less begins with a very authentic and well-documented event, the 1914 lull in fighting due to the spontaneous and unofficial 24th of December Christmas Truce during WWI. Both Allied and German soldiers meet in “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to exchange food, stories and camaraderie. During this incredible event, the lives of two families, German and Jew, become irrevocably intertwined — the rest, as we say, is history and the storyline of The Ledger.

This wonderful book is authentic and detail oriented. I could find no fault with the well-documented history, the unit designations, or the language, as English, French, and German words are used liberally and in the correct context.

Whether you read this book as an historian, a romantic, or a war buff, you will find it satisfying on all accounts, and I dare you to put it down once you start. Sequel?

Until next time, read a good book and happy navigating.


This article is tagged with , , , , , and posted in Defense, Opinions

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.

7 Comments on "A Space Pioneer Remembered"

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  1. Len Jacobson says:

    I knew Duke from 621B days and later on when he formed the GPS International Association, I was helping him with that.
    It was an honor to have known him and am saddened by his passing. Your writeup about him was endearing to read. Thanks.

    • Don Jewell says:

      Thanks for the kind words. Many of us knew Duke from those early days. GPS was always a passion with him. He will be missed.

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks for such a warm tribute to an outstanding man who served our country so dutifully. I never heard of Duke until I read your article, however, I am pleased to have a brief peek into his outstanding career through your article.


    • Don Jewell says:

      Thanks for your kind words. We are loosing too many of the “Greatest Generation” without ever fully knowing about their significant contributions.

  3. Jules McNeff says:

    Thank you for your tribute to Duke’s many contributions beyond the GPS community. I was also sad to hear of his passing. I met Duke in the late 1980’s and watched with considerable interest as he established the GPS International Association. He felt strongly that the GPS users needed their own forum to voice user interests similar to that which had recently been established for GPS industry via the U.S. GPS Industry Council. His foresight and energy will be missed.

    • Don Jewell says:

      Thanks for your kind words. Of course you and I knew Duke well and you are correct, he made many significant contributions beyond GPS, even though it was a major accomplishment in which he was always very proud to have had a role to play.

  4. Michael Kane says:

    Duke Kane was my uncle and I can tell you the germinal event that grabbed his interest in flight. While a young boy, Duke and my father Jack (Duke’s) older brother pooled them resources and bought a very popular adolescent novel by *Nordoff & and Hall called Falcons of France written about two young American boys who volunteered to fly for France in WWI before the U.S. entered the conflict. Duke’s eyes were set skyward ever after….

    *These authors also wrote Mutiny on The Bounty.