Robert H. Tolson

Robert H. Tolson

Distinguished Langley Professor Emeritus Robert TolsonDistinguished Langley Professor Emeritus

Center for Planetary Atmospheric Flight Sciences

100 Exploration Way, Hampton, VA 23666

Tel: +1 (757) 325-6840; Fax: +1 (757) 325-6701


  • B. S. Aeronautical Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute
  • M. S. Physics, V.P.I
  • Ph. D Engineering Mechanics, Old Dominion University

Work Experience 

  • Distinguished Langley Professor Emeritus and Director, Center for Planetary Atmospheric Flight, National Institute of Aerospace, 2011-present
  • North Carolina State University, Samuel P. Langley Professor, 2005 – 2011
  • University of Maryland, Professor of Aerospace Engineering, 2004
  • George Washington Univ., Professor of Aerospace Engineering, 1991-2003
  • Head, Interdisciplinary Research Office, 1984-1990
  • Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center, 1982-1984
  • Head, Atmospheric Sciences Branch, 1977-1982
  • Head, Planetary Physics Branch, 1972-1977
  • Viking Navigation Manager, 1969-1972
  • Co- Investigator, Lunar Orbiter Selenodesy Experiment
  • Member, Apollo Navigation Working Group
  • Co-Investigator, Viking Radio Science Team
  • Principal Investigator, Viking Phobos-Deimos Encounter Experiment
  • Co- Investigator, Pioneer Venus Aeronomy Experiment
  • Co-Investigator, Magellan Aerobraking
  • Principal Investigator, Magellan Windmill and Termination Experiments
  • Principal Investigator, Mars Global Surveyor Aerobraking, Mars Odyssey Aerobraking and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Aerobraking
  • Co-Investigator, Mars Science Lab. Entry, Descent and Landing Exp.

Research Interests 

  • Planetary atmospheric flight science and systems
  • Planetary atmospheric science, measurements and modeling
  • Space flight orbital mechanics, guidance, orbit determination and navigation

Current Research

Tolson’s comes to NIA with a diverse and robust research portfolio. He carries with him a relationship with NASA that is represented today in the way that his research is integrated with the efforts of NASA’s planetary entry, atmospheric science, and sensor development groups. This relationship, along with the body of knowledge and experience he possesses, lends great dimension to the experience that students and collaborating researchers have at NIA. Tolson’s interest in the exploration of other celestial bodies, terrestrial and extraterrestrial atmospheres, and sensors, integrates with NIA’s main research thrust in space exploration and atmospheric science.

Throughout his career Tolson has been directly involved in pre-flight, operations, and post flight analysis of space missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus and Titan. He has recently been involved in every NASA planetary aerobraking mission, and while in academia, he provided his students with the unique opportunity to have operational responsibilities during the aerobraking phase of the Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Odyssey, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter missions. During these missions, Tolson lead students in real time analysis and interpretation of accelerometer and telemetry data to determine aerodynamic/atmospheric properties at aerobraking altitudes. Results of the interpretations were used to make daily orbit-maneuver decisions.

Recent Publications

Amzajerdian, F., Busch, G., Barnes, N., Pierrottet, D., and Tolson, R., “Lidar Instrument for Global Measurement of Mars Atmosphere,” in Proceedings of the 8th International Planetary Probe Workshop, 6-10 June 2011, Portsmouth, Virginia

Busnardo, D., Aitken, M., Tolson, R., Pierrottet, D., and Amzajerdian, F., “LIDAR-Aided Inertial Navigation with Extended Kalman Filtering for Pinpoint Landing over Rough Terrain,” AIAA Paper 2011-428 in Proceedings of the 49th AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting, 4-7 January, 2011, Orlando, Florida

Prince, J. L., Dec, J. A., & Tolson, R. H. (2009). Autonomous aerobraking using thermal response surface analysis. J. Spacecraft and Rockets, 46(2), 292-298.

Fuller, J., and Tolson, R., “Improved Method for the Estimation of Spacecraft Free-Molecular Aerodynamic Properties,” J. Spacecraft Rockets, 46 (2009): 938-948), doi:10.2514/1.43205

Sebastian, T., and Tolson, R., “Methods for the Determination of Aerodynamic Parameters and Trajectory Reconstruction of the Orion Command Module from Scale Model Aeroballistic Flight Data,” AIAA Paper 2009-0882, in Proceedings of the 47th AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting, 5-8 January 2009, Orlando, Florida

Tolson, R.H., Willcockson, W. Desai, P., Thomas, P., “Anomalistic Disturbance Torques During the Entry Phase of the Mars Exploration Rover Missions – A Telemetry and Mars-Surface Investigation.” J. of the Astronautical Sciences, vol. 56, no. 1, Jan.-Mar., 2008.

Tolson, R.H., Keating, G. M., Zurek, R. W., Bougher, S. W., Justus, C. J., Fritts, D.C., Application of Acclerometer Data to Atmospheric Modeling During Mars Aerobraking Operations, J. Spacecraft and Rockets 2007, 0022-4650 vol.44 no.6 (1172-1179)

Spencer, D.A. and Tolson, R.H., Aerobraking Cost and Risk Decisions J. Spacecraft and Rockets, 0022-4650 vol.44 no.6 (1285-1293), Nov. 2007.

Fritts, D. C., Wang, L., Tolson, R. H., “Mean and gravity wave structured and variability in the Mars upper atmosphere inferred from Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey aerobraking densities,” J. Geophy. Res.,Vol. 111, 2006.




100 Exploration Way
Hampton, VA 23666