Original photographer:
Earl Theisen
Earl Theisen

Bill Ganzel


Frank Zawada "Heir to the Nuclear Age"

Frank Zawada, Heir to the Nuclear Age

"Space helmets! Zap guns! We will defend this Fortress Earth to the last 10-year-old!" Frank Zawada was quotes as saying in 1960. It is a fortress of his own device and, for the present, it is only make-believe. Photo by Earl Theisen.

Frank Zawada at the Wings over the Rockies Museum

Frank Zawada at the display for Colorado Astronaut Jack Swigert at the Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Denver, CO, May, 2009.
All original material ©2006-2013 by Bill Ganzel, all rights reserved.

"The Heir to the Nuclear Age" was what LOOK dubbed Frank Zawada, Jr., in 1960 because his father, Frank, Sr., worked for a high-tech firm in New England. LOOK said he was "one of the millions of boys whose lives will be shaped by scientific developments we can hardly foresee."

"I don't remember [where I got the space helmet]," Zawada says now. "It's not a fish bowl because I wouldn't be able to hold it on my head, that amount of glass. Looking at it, it looks like there's a slide that goes up and down. I don't know where I got it."

When asked what it felt like to be the heir to the nuclear age, he says, "I'm glad I don't have the burden all by myself," he laughs. "Hopefully, as I take my experiences, my education and the work that I'm doing, I helped move the country along… Now, what is funny is that I do have a degree in nuclear engineering, but I've never used it. But what it has taught me is what I am now, an analyst."

Zawada did go on to study nuclear engineering in college, but the Vietnam War forced him into ROTC so he could choose his type of service. When he joined the Air Force, they trained him to be an operations researcher. He served as an officer behind the lines, but he had classmates who were killed in Vietnam.

He retired from the Air Force after 27 years and now works as a military consultant through Johns Hopkins University. His latest assignment is in Colorado Springs working with the Missile Defense Agency. He wanted to become a pilot, but his eyesight kept him out of the cockpit. He knows the stories of the astronauts and enjoys the displays at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum.

Zawada thinks the 60s were a "major demarcation point in our society… The Vietnam War tore the country apart."

He admits that, like many during the 60s, he experimented briefly with drugs, but the military "taught me leadership, responsibility and discipline." He thinks the decade created the "birth of radicalism, and it's been with us ever since." He's as concerned with radicals on the right – like Timothy McVeigh – as those on the left. "I would rather have them demonstrate than take other actions."

With humility, Zawada says that he "contributed to changing history." He was on the development team for the Global Positioning Satellite system. Now, almost every cell phone has a GPS chip built into it. "We couldn't even think of, back in the 80s what [GPS could do]," he now says. "And it did! It changed the world. I was the first operational commander for the GPS command and control center. So, yeah, space did get into my blood."