Reaching for the Stars: John G. Puente, M.S. ’60, Telecommunications Satellite Pioneer

3/6/2012

As John G. Puente, M.S. ’60, and his team prepared to launch the Orion I satellite from Cape Canaveral in 1994, Puente took a moment. Looking into the November sky, he saw it: the Orion Constellation, burning brightly.

“I said: Wow! What a coincidence!” Puente recalls almost 20 years later. “That was amazing.” So was knowing that for the next 15 years, Orion I, a telecommunications satellite he helped to build, was orbiting 22,500 miles above the earth. 

The Orion 1 project – the first international private telecommunications satellite to file with the FCC to launch into space —is just one of many achievements for a man who has enjoyed a long career as an engineer, entrepreneur, executive and philanthropist.

It wasn’t always an easy path. The New York City native joined the Air Force after high school because he needed money for college. Even with the GI Bill, “I had all kinds of jobs,” he says with a laugh, from Bell Labs technician to manual laborer in New York’s Garment District, to help pay for college.

Puente knows what it’s like to work hard to get a good education. Now, he wants to help those who desire a Stevens education just like he experienced. So Puente and his wife, Beverly, have established the John G. and Beverly A. Puente Endowed Scholarship for Stevens students.

Puente juggled jobs while attending the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he earned his bachelor of engineering degree in 1957. He later chose Stevens for graduate school because he was living and working in New Jersey, and it was convenient, he acknowledges.

He was married and attending night classes – which he paid for himself—and had little time for anything else. But Puente soon discovered that Stevens had some terrific professors and a top-notch engineering program, from which he earned his master’s in electrical engineering.

“I have fond memories of Stevens,” he says. “I learned a lot there.”

Puente would use what he learned to become chairman and CEO of Orion Network Systems, the company that launched Orion 1. He was also a founder of several telecommunications companies, including Digital Communications Corporation (now Hughes Network Systems), which focused on satellite telecommunications, and SouthernNet, a fiber optic company. Puente also served as chairman of Telogy Networks, Inc., which provided embedded communications software products for wireless and IP networks and was founded by Stevens Board Member Thomas Scholl.

Now retired and living in Potomac, Md., Puente, 81, serves as a director with Micros Systems, Inc., a provider for enterprise applications for the hospitality and retail industries. For his many achievements as an entrepreneur, Puente received the 2011 Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. Entrepreneur Award from Stevens last fall.

In conversation, Puente is down-to-earth and self-effacing, despite his accomplishments. He generously shares memories—with wonderful detail—and seems quietly proud of his journey. 

Raised in New York City and, later, Union City, N.J., Puente is the younger step-brother of the late legendary musician Tito Puente, who tried in vain to get him interested in music. (“I had no talent,” John Puente says with a hearty laugh.) Instead, his passion was for math and technology. As a child, he built model airplanes and dreamed of being a fighter pilot.

His poor eyesight prevented that but, after graduation from Union Hill High School in Union City, Puente did join the Air Force, where he was trained as a radar technician, and served in Japan during the Korean War.

A mentor suggested that he enter Polytechnic and he enrolled after the war, becoming the first in his immediate family to graduate from college.

Work with ITT Labs and IBM followed and then came the job offer from COMSAT, a pioneer in satellite communications.

“I was saying to myself: what do I know about satellites?” Puente says.

Puente learned quickly, specializing in international satellite communications, and finally running three laboratories at COMSAT, focusing on satellite communications, spacecraft and antennas. Puente was an engineer in the control room when COMSAT launched the first commercial communications satellite, the Early Bird, in 1965.

“My whole career at COMSAT was very exciting for me,” he says.

After nine years there, he wanted to strike out on his own and in 1972 was a founder of DCC; Puente became chairman, helping to build it into a multi-million company.

His years as CEO of Orion Network Systems were also a career highlight—with a few hair-raising moments.

While Orion Network was responsible for the telecommunications components on the Orion I satellite, the satellite itself—the size of a small truck—was built by British Aerospace. So when the first launch was scheduled for that November 1994 day, partners from all over the world gathered at Cape Canaveral. The rocket was on the launch pad; the countdown reached 0 – but nothing happened.

“I ran down to the operations room: What’s going on!” he recalls. The computer system had shut off the launch due to a cable on the launch vehicle not releasing. The satellite’s maiden journey into space finally came a week later.

In recent years, Puente has spent more time on volunteer and philanthropic causes. For 30 years, up until 2010, he chaired the board of trustees of Capitol College, a college dedicated to engineering, computer science, information technology and business in Laurel, Md.

This father of three sons and grandfather of three has played many roles, but engineering occupies a special place.

“Engineers are trained to solve problems,” he says. “You want to go to the moon? You have to solve a lot of problems to get there.

“Engineering is always exciting because it’s always a new challenge.”