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Coffman, Vance Dean

Published onJul 30, 2021
Coffman, Vance Dean

(April 3, 1944 - )

Quick Facts

Aerospace engineering graduate, former CEO of Lockheed Martin Coffman would oversee several high-profile projects including the Hubble Space Telescope, the MILSTAR satellite communication program and the Follow-on Early Warning System.


Vance Dean Coffman was born in 1944 in Kinross, Iowa, the son of Clyde and Sarah (Wiggins) Coffman. He grew up on the family farm near Winthrop, Iowa, graduating from East Buchanan High School in 1962 (where he met his future wife, Arlene Betty Craig, with whom he has two grown daughters). His interest in math, science, and the escalating Space Race drew him towards engineering and he enrolled in Iowa State University to study aerospace engineering. To help pay his tuition, he worked for Lockheed Corporation during the summers, including time at Edwards Air Force Base and projects working on the X-15 rocket-powered aircraft.

Upon earning his BS in Aerospace Engineering in 1967, he was hired into Lockheed’s Space Systems division as a guidance and control systems analyst. Always looking to move forward, while working at Lockheed he also worked towards graduate degrees from Stanford University, ultimately earning an MS and, in 1973, his PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He worked on a number of classified projects for the U.S. government, and thus received little in the way of public recognition, but he has said that the achievement he was most proud of was a method he devised that could be used by spy satellites to perform automatic course corrections by using the positions of stars.

However, he was noticed by his superiors for expanding his knowledge beyond the engineering field by studying management techniques as well. In 1985 he became a Vice President in Lockheed’s Space Systems division and by September 1988 he was President of the division and a corporate Vice President. While in this position he oversaw several high-profile projects including the Hubble Space Telescope, the MILSTAR satellite communication program, the Follow-on Early Warning System (later called the Space Based Infrared System), and, in a joint project with Motorola, the Iridium satellite telephone network.

By the time that Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta Corp in 1995, Dr. Coffman had become an Executive Vice President. Following the merger, he was President and Chief Operating Officer of the Strategic Missiles Sector of the newly-christened Lockheed Martin Corporation. A few years later, he was promoted to being Chief Executive Officer of the company, and was elected Chairman of the Board the following year. Ultimately, he held the position of CEO for seven years, finally stepping down in 2004. He was on the board of directors for the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Meyers Squibb from 1998 through 2007 and, since leaving Lockheed Martin, he was been involved with several other corporations outside of the aerospace field, such as Deere & Co. and 3M.

He has also received significant recognition for his work, both in aerospace, business, and national defense circles and more broadly in educational initiatives. Iowa State University has honored him a number of times. In 1989 he received their Professional Progress in Engineering Award, a 1999 Distinguished Achievement Citation, the 2005 Anson Marston Medal from the College of Engineering, and an honorary Doctor of Science degree and Honorary Distinguished Professor status in 2006, at which time he was also gave the undergraduate commencement address. ISU’s Aerospace Engineering department also has an endowed chair in his name, funded by Lockheed Martin at the time of Dr. Coffman’s retirement from the company. Other honorary degrees that he has received include Doctor of Aerospace Engineering from Embry-Riddle University, Doctor of Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology (both in 1998), and Doctor of Laws from Pepperdine University’s George L. Graziadio School of Business and Management (in 2000). Additionally, he has served on the board of directors for the United Negro College Fund.

Beyond academia, he was made an elected fellow in the American Astronautical Society in 1991, a member of the National Academy of Engineers in 1997, an honorary fellow the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1999, and became the Chairman of the Board of Governors for the Aerospace Industries Association for 2003. He has received the Rear Admiral John J. Bergen Industry Award from the New York Council of the Navy League, the Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Award from the Navy League of the United States, has been named a National Reconnaissance Pioneer by the National Reconnaissance Office, and has been the Chairman of the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee under President George W. Bush.

Selected Sources

Much of this information was drawn from the Iowa State University Archives, specifically the contents of Vance Coffman’s folder in the Iowa State University Alumni and Former Student Subject Files, RS 21/7/1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library, but also in the records concerning the Anton Marston Medal at Iowa State University, College of Engineering, Honors and Awards Records, RS 11/1/5, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Crock, Stan. “Can this farm boy keep Lockheed in orbit?” BusinessWeek, 27 Oct. 1997, pp. 103-107.

“East Buchanan – Our Notable People.” Showcase Iowa Schools, 9 Dec. 2016.

“Vance Coffman.” Relationship Science, 9 Dec. 2016.

“Wedding Announcements”. The Bulletin-Journal [Independence, Iowa], 17 June, 1966, p. 4.

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