Dee-Oh-Tee and me

I was asked to contribute a few personal recollections, celebrating the 50th birthday of DOT, the U.S. Department of Transportation.

My first contact was in 1970, when FAA chief William Magruder asked me (then serving as a deputy assistant secretary of interior) to chair  an inter-agency panel to evaluate the environmental effects of the two prototypes of a supersonic transport aircraft (SST), then under construction at Boeing.  The main issues were the putative effects of water vapor (W.V.) exhaust on depletion of stratospheric ozone and a possible rise in the rate of skin cancers.

We learned much from this exercise:

1. An SST for passenger travel may not be commercially viable. 

2. The skin cancer model was wrong. 

3. And W.V. was not the most important ozone depleter; it was the exhaust of nitrogen oxides.

4. We found that the ongoing human-related production of methane should lead to the stratospheric W.V. equivalent of a fleet of 500 SSTs.  (I published this conjecture in Nature in 1971, after Science mag rejected my paper.)

In 1987, I was recruited from the University of Virginia to the post of DOT chief scientist, mainly to supervise the FAAs design of their new air traffic control system – a real challenge.  But I also had responsibility for civilian applications of GPS, a task assigned to DOT by the Defense Department.  Little did we anticipate the explosive growth of GPS.

I recall a senior staff meeting where I asked my colleagues: “Do you ever wake up and wonder: where am I, and where am I going?  Well, this little GPS receiver will tell you.”  No one believed me at the time.

By the way, I was most impressed by the competence of the women of the senior staff.  Maybe I should not have been surprised, but having spent my career in engineering and hard sciences, it felt like a discovery.

Probably, the most fun aspect of my job was working on simulators around the country.  I crashed trains in Pueblo, Colo., crashed cars in Ohio, and ran ships aground in King’s Point, N.Y.  But nothing beats smashing airplanes into the tarmac at the flight simulator in Oklahoma City.

S. Fred Singer ( is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and director of the Science & Environmental Policy Project.  His specialty is atmospheric and space physics.  An expert in remote sensing and satellites, he served as the founding director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service and, more recently, as vice chair of the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Oceans & Atmosphere.  He devised the satellite instrument used to track ozone.  He is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute and the Independent Institute and an elected fellow of several scientific societies.  He co-authored the N.Y. Times best-seller Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years.  In 2007, he founded and has chaired the NIPCC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change), which has released several scientific reports in English and in other languages (see  For recent writings see and also Google Scholar.